Rugby sevens: Japan men earn ticket to Rio 2016 Olympics

The Rio 2016 Games mark the debut of rugby sevens at the Olympics, and the Asia Rugby Sevens Qualifier 2015 determined which men’s team from the region would qualify and which women’s team would move a step closer.  Japan were the heavy favorites on the men’s side, having long been ranked at the top of the first tier for the annual IRL World Sevens Series.  Meanwhile, the Japan women’s squad – who consistently battles for the top spot in Asia – attempted to move ahead of the pack in the first of two legs in the event.

Both teams won their respective divisions, but their final matches revealed different journeys.


Men: Victory for Japan, agony once again for Hong Kong

The South Stand was noticeably devoid of the colorful costumed characters that typically dot the Hong Kong Stadium grounds when the HSBC Sevens are in town.  Despite the remarkably minimalist backdrop, the vocal crowd who never fails to boost the hopes of the “local lads” during the Hong Kong Sevens were back in full force on the sidelines, this time cheering Hong Kong in their request for an Olympic berth.

However, on paper this was a clear uphill battle.  Last year, Japan won the HSBC Sevens World Series qualifying tournament, gaining a spot in the main event for the 2014-2015 season and performing respectably, avoiding relegation.  Hong Kong has competed in the immensely popular Sevens event at home thanks to the fact that they are already based in the host city.  They are also the reigning 2014 Asian Games silver medalists, having lost in the final match to…Japan.

After the first half, it looked as if Team Hong Kong was well on its way towards an upset.  Aggressive high-flying defense, and tries by Alex McQueen and Max Woodward, held Japan to a scoreless first half.  Up until that point, Japan had not conceded a single point in five matches.  However, in the second, Japan regained their pre-final form.  Boosted by a Katsuyuki Sakai try and two conversions, they scored 24 unanswered points, snatching a place in Rio and demoralizing the Hong Kong side, 24-10, of which at least one member – Salom Yiu Kam Shing (姚錦成) – was reduced to tears during the award ceremony.

The result confirmed Japan’s perch as the top team in Asia in the World Series and in regional competition.  While Hong Kong still has a chance to qualify for the last slot in Rio, it must contend with 15 other teams at the Final Olympic Qualification Tournament in June, including South Korea (third place) and Sri Lanka (fourth place).  Meanwhile, Japan joins the top four finishers from the 2014-2015 World Series – Fiji, South Africa, New Zealand, Great Britain – along with Argentina, the United States and France in Rio.

Photos: Asia Rugby Sevens Qualifier 2015 championship – Japan 24, Hong Kong 10
all photos by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine

Women: Japan dominate Kazakhstan in final, move one step closer to Rio

The Japan women’s sevens team, nicknamed the “Sakura Sevens,” competed against five other squads in one lone round robin pool, shutting out three (Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Guam), narrowly defeating one (a 7-5 win over Kazakhstan) and losing to China, 12-5.  However, China’s two losses meant that Japan would advance to play Kazakhstan in the final match.  Following a rigorous team workout on the sidelines, Marie Yamaguchi flew away from the pack with her two tries, leading Japan to an emphatic 22-0 victory.  The second leg of the Asia Rugby Sevens Qualifier 2015 takes place in Tokyo from Nov. 28-29.

Nov. 29 note: The Sakura Sevens qualified for the 2016 Olympics, once again defeating Kazakhstan in the final, this time by a score of 14-7.

Photos: Asia Rugby Sevens Qualifier 2015 championship – Japan 22, Kazakhstan 0
all photos by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine