Japan wins 2016 HSBC Sevens World Series Qualifier


Silver medalists at the 2014 Asian Games.

A gut-wrenching second place finish at the Asia Rugby Sevens (Olympic) Qualifier 2015 on their home turf.

And now, once again, familiar territory as runners-up at the 2016 HSBC Sevens World Series qualifying tournament for the team often dubbed as the “local boys” in Hong Kong.

All three of those losses suffered by Hong Kong were at the hands of Japan, who continue to stay ahead of their rivals as the best team in Asia, if not the first tier of international sevens competition.  Japan last won the Sevens World Series qualifying tournament two years ago, moving up to the big leagues and competing in the 2014-2015 Series.  There they struggled and were immediately relegated the following season.

Seeking another chance, Japan rolled through Pool G play at the 2016 qualifying tournament, shutting out Brazil, Morocco and Tonga.  Two more shutouts in the quarterfinals (over Tonga once again) and the semifinals (versus Zimbabwe) led to a rematch with Hong Kong, who had actually lost twice in three pool play matches, but managed to come through in the elimination rounds, avenging an earlier defeat to Germany with a 17-7 victory in the semifinals.

The championship rematch between Japan and Hong Kong played out in eerily similar fashion to the Asia Olympic qualification tournament in November.  Hong Kong took a lead on the same pitch (at Hong Kong Stadium in So Kon Po), only to fade – once again – largely due to the play of two members on the opposing team: No. 7 Katsuyuki Sakai, who had two conversions, and No. 1 Lomano Lemeki.  A Tongan raised in New Zealand, Lemeki has played for Japan since 2014, and pulled off a hat trick in his squad’s 24-14 victory in the final.  (The Fiji-born Lote Tuqiri scored the fourth try.)

This time, there were no tears shed after the final, but one gets the frustrating sense that the closer Hong Kong inches to defeating Japan in key matches, their longtime rivals march several steps ahead.  Part of this can be attributed to sheer numbers.  According to a press release issued by the Hong Kong Rugby Union just before the Asia Olympic qualifier, more than 100,000 players and a strong professional presence comprise the sevens scene in Japan.  Already at a disadvantage, comparatively speaking, in terms of overall population, Hong Kong has just several thousand playing the game.  The growing popularity of the sport in Japan was also boosted by the performance of its 15s squad at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, posting victories over the United States, Samoa and, notably, South Africa in pool play.  (Japan will become the first ever Asian hosts when the World Cup hits their shores in 2019.)

As Japan gears up for the 2016 Summer Olympics and next season’s HSBC Sevens World Series, it’s back to the drawing board for Hong Kong, who will continue their quest to grab the last Olympic slot in June and attempt to improve on their runner-up finish in the 2015 Asian Sevens Series.  (The defending champions?  Japan.  Of course.)

Photos: 2016 HSBC Sevens World Series Qualifier XVII final – Japan d. Hong Kong, 24-14
all photos by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine

Video: 2016 HSBC Sevens World Series Qualifier – Hong Kong warms up on Day 3 of pool play
video by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine