Fiji qualified for the Sevens World Cup, to be played in Moscow next year, alongside China and Japan in India this weekend after they triumphed at last weekends Asian World Cup Qualifier in Pune, India, writes John Birch.
It has certainly not been an easy journey for Fiji. They first had to fight their way through not one but two very competitive qualification tournaments, and then had to take on the best in Asia a player down after prop Sainimere Nayalewanikataga dislocated her shoulder in the warm-up before their opening fixture.
The top three at Pune were guaranteed places in Moscow. In addition to Fiji, 14 teams from across Asia arrived in the city that is the heartland for Indian rugby. As a line-up it demonstrated the rapid growth of Asian womens rugby - not only was this five more teams than took part in 2008, it was also the biggest line-up for any tournament ever played on the continent. Favourites to qualify apart from the unknown Fijiana - were China and Kazakhstan (regulars at IRB tournaments last year) but Japan could also not be underestimated. Shock 2008 qualification tournament winners, they created headlines only five weeks ago when they beat world champions Australia on their way to the Asia-Pacific final.
Day one went almost entirely as expected - only the last minute withdrawal of Uzbekistan (who had been drawn in Japans pool) upsetting the organisers plans. With now only two opponents, Japan eased into the quarter-finals, conceding only a single try against an experienced Hong Kong side after dispatching the home team 49-0.
Despite Nayalewanikatagas pre-game accident, Fiji similarly breezed through their pool racking up 130 points against Chinese Taipei, Sri Lanka and Korea. Coach Elenoa Kunatuba claimed her charges were nervous before the start but they did little to show it scoring seven tries in their opening game against Sri Lanka, before running up the highest score of the tournament when they dispatched Korea 50-0.
China were equally emphatic winners of Pool C, scoring over 100 points while not conceding any as they swept past Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia a feat matched by Kazakhstan in Pool D who were equally untroubled by Singapore, Iran and UAE (who were playing in their first ever international tournament).
Day Two dawned with the excited home crowd finally being given what they had been waiting for a win for India in the opening bowl quarter-final, 5-0 over Malaysia, after which the popular Iranian team had the crowd on its feet again as they battled through to a 22-7 win over Korea.
Suitably warmed-up, spectators now prepared for the knock-out stages of the main event. Japan began against Thailand a replay of the 2008 qualifier final and an early try from Marie Yamaguchi soon put Japan ahead. However, the Thais were not giving up their world cup place easily and, after holding Japan to 5-0 at the break, pulled level after a magnificent offload, scoring in the corner. Shortly afterwards the Thais had a chance to go ahead was fumbled but then a Japanese kick ahead was recovered by Marie Yamaguchi who went on to score the decisive try. Japan had survived a fright and were through to the last four.
Fiji had no problems in their quarter with another seven try win, this time over Singapore, and China (31-0 over Hong Kong) and Kazakhstan (34-0 against Taipei) similarly eased into the semi-finals.
A win in the semi-finals would be enough to book a ticket to Moscow and the Fijiana seized control from the start against Japan. Theye were soon 12-0 up in the opening minutes, before a mistake in defence allowed the inevitable Marie Yamaguchi to touch down and bring Japan back into the game. However, in response Fiji went up a gear as a result and ran out 31-7 winners.
The second semi-final brought together the continents big rivals Kazakhstan and China and it was the Kazakhs who scored first, capitalising on a Chinese knock-on near their own line. Kazakhstan drove forward with a beautiful break, and then fantastic support did the rest. 5-0. A few minutes later and a looped pass sets Lyudmila Sherer for Kazakhstan's second try. Kazakhstan 12, China 0.
But the Chinese were not giving up. A 60m breakaway try brought the score to 12-7, and another in the corner tied things up at 12-12. Then, in the dying seconds, a Kazakh miss-kick was recovered by the Chinese who race through to score. 17-12, China are in the finals again while a shattered Kazakhstan have to face the all-or-nothing playoff against Japan.
That game, which took place about an hour later, opened with a beautifully worked team try from Japan. Having seized the initiative, Japan are soon within inches of doubling their lead but lost the ball near the Kazakh try line. Kazakhstan stay on their feet and dish the ball to Lyudmila Sherer, who runs 75m for the try. Japan 7-7 Kazakhstan at the half.
As the second period opens, Japan again go forward but again miss out on a certain score, knocking-on in the Kazakh try area. However, they win the ball against the head from the subsequent scrum and its Japan 12, Kazakhstan 7. The Kazakhs now throw everything into the attack but some heroic tackling holds them at bay until, with time running out, Japan finally recover the ball, sweep down field and score again. Japan are going to Sevens World Cup for the second time, and for the second time Kazakhstan have to come to terms with losing the vital play-off place.
After the drama and emotion of the third place game, the final is something of an anti-climax. Fiji score the only try in the first half, double their lead at the start of the second and shortly afterwards score a third. China rarely manage to get beyond halfway, and when time runs out the best of the Pacific has beaten the best of Asia by 15-0.
Bowl quarter-finals: India 5-0 Malaysia; Sri Lanka 20-10 UAE; Philippines bye; Iran 29-7 Korea
Cup quarter-finals: Japan 12-5 Thailand; Fiji 47-0 Singapore; China 31-0 Hong Kong; Kazakhstan 34-0 Taipei
Bowl semi-finals: India 0-33 Sri Lanka; Philippines 24-5 Iran
Shield semi-finals: Malaysia 12-17 UAE; Korea Bye
Plate semi-finals: Thailand 17-12 Singapore; Hong Kong 27-0 Taipei
Cup semi-finals: Japan 7-31 Fiji; China 17-12 Kazakhstan
15th place: Malaysia
Shield final (13th/14th): UAE 24-0 Korea
11th/12th place: India 12-17 Iran
Bowl final (9th/10th): Sri Lanka 7-22 Philippines
7th/8th place: Singapore 12-5 Taipei
Plate final (5th/6th): Thailand 7-19 Hong Kong
3rd/4th place (winner qualifies for World Cup): Japan 17-7 Kazakhstan
Cup final: Fiji 15-0 China