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Japan with one foot in Rio

Japan hold the advantage after a topsy-turvey first leg of Asia’s Olympic qualifier

The first leg of Asia’s women’s Olympic qualifier in Hong Kong last weekend even closer than expected, with no team surviving the pool phase unbeaten.

Hosts Hong Kong in particular had a roller-coaster of a weekend, starting (and ending) with wins over their big rivals China, but going down to crucial defeat to Japan at the end of Day One, and the losing to Kazakhstan in what was effectively a “semi-final” are the beginning of Day 2. However third place, 17-12 over China thanks to two tries from crowd favourite Aggie Poon Pak-yan, gives them an outside chance for the second leg – remembering that Japan won the Asian Championship last month after finishing third in the first leg of that tournament.  But it’ll be tough, as coach Anna Richards acknowledged:

“I think I’ve had my heart in my mouth for most of the weekend,” she said. “It’s been really close and I said before that there are four legitimate sides in Asia. It’s on the day. We beat China and then China beat Japan. It’s all about consistency I think and if you don’t do that over two days it is a hard tournament to win. [Third] gives us a mathematical chance, but a tough one. We really need to win and have other results go our way.”

Ben Golling’s China, on the other hand, now have a huge mountain to climb. Coming back from fourth place means that their Olympic hopes are now firmly dependent on other teams slipping up, while they will have to be pitch perfect in Tokyo in three weeks’ time. They remain capable of beating anyone as they showed against Japan in the final pool game – China’s 12-5 win being Japan’s only defeat over the weekend. However by that time their final hopes had gone, their 5-0 loss to Hong Kong on Day One hitting their confidence and being followed by a 22-12 defeats to Kazakhstan.

It was the Kazakhstanis who were the sensation on the weekend as they put together their best sevens performance in years. Expected to be far too good for Guam and Sri Lanka, but no good enough to threaten the other three teams, they threw the form book out of the window by coming within a conversion of shocking Japan in the opening game before seeing off China and then Hong Kong. Japan were too good for them over the 20-minute final, but Kazakhstan will now believe that Rio is close, and if Japan stumble under the pressure of a home crowd they are best placed to take advantage.

But it will be Japan who everyone needs to defeat. The home pressure will be huge on 28/29th November, but of all the teams they have shown that they the best at keeping their heads – as we saw in both Dublin and Colombo. Their only stumble this weekend was that final pool game against China, but that was really a dead rubber with both teams’ fates decided regardless of the result. Elsewhere they were clinical, no more so that their 36-0 drubbing of Hong Kong at a crucial stage in the poll. A place in Rio is there for the taking, Japan’s coach Keiko Asami is looking forward to it:

"In sevens rugby you have to forget your mistakes and we did that," she said. "We are so happy because now we can go home and play in front of our country with our confidence high."

Only the series winner will be guaranteed a place in Rio – but teams finishing second, third and fourth will play in next summer’s pre-games repecharge.

Elsewhere Guam and Kat Merchant’s Sri Lanka were, predictably perhaps, well off the pace, with both teams conceding over 150 points in the five pool games (Guam over 200). Sri Lanka – like China – have drafted in a big name coach for this series, but even the greatest of coaches cannot turn teams around in a few weeks – it has taken the region’s other “big name” import, Anna Richards, over two years to get Hong Kong to where they are now. Sri Lanka have huge, if very raw, potential with great interest in the game in the island and a big player base, but it will take Sri Lanka at least as long before they will be competing for podium places. Realistically this weekend should be seen as the start of their campaign for the 2020, or even 2024, Games – but will the island’s rugby authorities have the patience to wait for the results to come?

Results:

Pool: Japan  7−5  Kazakhstan; China  54−0  Guam; Hong Kong  36−5  Sri Lanka; Kazakhstan  46−7  Guam; Japan  48−0  Sri Lanka; China  0−5  Hong Kong; Sri Lanka  22–7  Guam; China  12–22  Kazakhstan; Japan  36–0  Hong Kong; Japan  53–0  Guam; China  47–7  Sri Lanka; Hong Kong  12–20  Kazakhstan; Sri Lanka  7–31  Kazakhstan; Hong Kong  29–0  Guam; Japan  5–12  China;

Fifth Place Match: Sri Lanka  5–21  Guam

Third Place Match: Hong Kong  12–7  China

Final: Japan  22–0  Kazakhstan