Nov 7, 3 years ago

The best of Asia set to battle it out for spot in Rio Olympics

The best of Asia set to battle it out for spot in Rio Olympics

A total of 16 teams – 10 men’s and six women’s – will take part at the home of the famous Hong Kong Sevens, the Hong Kong Stadium, with Japan favourites to emerge on top in both competitions.

With the feel-good factor still bubbling back home, a confident Japan will aim to cap their remarkable performance at the World Cup by claiming Asia’s automatic berth for rugby sevens at the 2016 Rio Olympics by winning the men’s qualifying tournament this weekend.

A total of 16 teams – 10 men’s and six women’s – will take part at the home of the famous Hong Kong Sevens, the Hong Kong Stadium, with Japan favourites to emerge on top in both competitions.

Captain of the Japanese men’s team Yusaku Kuwazuru said his side would draw inspiration from the Brave Blossoms’ heroic performance at the world Cup where they won three matches in the pool stages, including a famous win over South Africa. “The World Cup was inspiring. Now it is up to us,” said Kuwazuru who will have one player from the 15s squad in his company this weekend, flying winger Yoshikazu Fujita.

Fujita has been a member of the sevens squad in past seasons and his return to the squad will be a huge boost. Japan will also be strengthened by the return from injury of playmaker Lomano Lemeki, who missed the winning campaign at the Asia Rugby Sevens Series. With Lote Tuqiri also in the team, Japan will be expected to go all the way to the final on Sunday.

Despite their unbeaten run at the three-legged Asia Rugby Sevens Series, coach Tomohiro Segawa is not taking anything for granted and will be wary of a number of teams, especially arch-rivals Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong has home advantage, and then there are china, South Korea and Sri Lanka. We cannot take them lightly,” said Segawa.

Segawa realises that a ticket to Rio de Janeiro will boost the image of rugby sevens back home. “Compared to the 15s side, sevens is not yet recognized that much in Japan. It would be a great opportunity for the Japanese people to know about this game if we qualify for the Rio Olympics. And with Japan hosting the next World Cup (in 2019) and the next Olympics (Tokyo, 2020), it would be huge for the sport back home,” Segawa said.

Hosts Hong Kong will be aiming to spoil Japan’s party. The Max Woodward-led team has welcomed back winger Tom McQueen from injury and former Hong Kong sevens captain Mark Wright will also return to the side.

Hong Kong also received a morale-booster with former captain Jamie Hood and playmaker Keith Robertson both becoming eligible to play after getting their Hong Kong SAR passports on the eve of the tournament. The presence of the experienced duo will “lift” the squad said Hong Kong head coach Gareth Baber.

Sri Lanka will be led by Sudharshana Muthuthantri who has taken over the captaincy from longtime skipper Fazil Marija, although the latter is still in the squad coached by former England star Matt Turner. The islanders will be strengthened by the return of powerhouse forward Shenal Dias who missed the Asia Rugby Sevens Series due to his university studies in the United States.

“Japan and Hong Kong are the two main dangers while we have to be wary of Sri Lanka too,” said South Korean coach Seo Chun Oh. “But our goal is to try and win this spot in the Olympics for if we do, it will lift the profile of rugby and be massive for the sport back home.”

Japan is pooled with South Korea, China, Singapore and Chinese-Taipei while Hong Kong is grouped with Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Philippines and Iran. With only the top two advancing to the semi-finals, it will be a battle for all teams from the opening match with everything at stake.

Unlike the men’s, the women’s competition will be played over two legs with the second leg later this month in Tokyo.

Little separated the top four teams in the recently concluded Asia Rugby Sevens Series. Japan, China and Hong Kong all finished equal on 14 points and Kazakhstan had their moments against all of the top three sides.

Japan, reigning Asian sevens champions will once again be favourites to emerge as victors from the six teams – the others are China, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Sri Lanka and Guam – who will initially play a round-robin competition before the places for the knockout phase is decided.

Head coach of Japan, Keiko Asami identified her captain, Chiharu Nakamura as the key member of her team, a player that embodies the style and colour of the Japan team.

China, who finished second on the series and is coached by former England Sevens player, Ben Gollings, is very aware of the ramifications of the Qualifier and the effect that it could have on China rugby. “Massive! It doesn’t get any bigger at this stage, said Gollings.

“All teams have put a lot of resources and effort into this opportunity and to represent your country at an Olympics as a rugby player has never been done before, so to make that a reality is every players dream.”

Hong Kong, coached by former Black Ferns star, Anna Richards, will be looking to repeat their performance earlier in Qingdao and are looking forward to playing the biggest game of their lives on home soil. “I think the girls really enjoy playing in Hong Kong in front of their family and friends,” Richards says. “Some people have says there is a lot of pressure on them playing at home, but I don’t see that. I think there is a bit of home field advantage for our girls.”


© | Triomedia PPL | Rugby Asia


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