Japan came through a group including France, Samoa and Argentina to advance to the quarterfinals of a Sevens World Series tournament for the first time since 2000 at the Tokyo Sevens on Saturday.
Japan earned promotion to the competition’s 15 core teams last season but has struggled badly among the elite, winning only two games in six tournaments to head into its home event bottom of the standings, 15 points adrift of Portugal.
But the Brave Blossoms started strongly at Prince Chichibu Memorial Ground with a 14-14 draw with Argentina, before blowing Samoa away with a devastating display of attacking rugby to earn a 26-12 win.
A 26-26 draw between Samoa and Argentina then secured Japan’s quarterfinal place before Tomohiro Segawa’s men had even taken the field for their final group game against France, which Japan lost 24-19 to finish as Pool D runnerup.
Japan now takes on Fiji — which won last week’s Hong Kong Sevens — in Sunday’s quarterfinal, with its chances of avoiding relegation from the series also enhanced after Portugal failed to advance to the last eight.
“We wanted to get through with a win, but our main objective was to reach the quarterfinals so I’m very happy that we’ve been able to do that,” said Segawa, who revealed that he did not tell his players that they had already qualified before they took the field to face the French. “Now we have to get ready for tomorrow and the aim is to reach the semis.
“Our defense has really improved, and that was crucial. In the past, if a player broke through our defensive line, they would usually score. We are still missing tackles, but we are much more tenacious now and that’s where we’ve grown the most.”
The Sevens World Series this year doubles as a qualifying tournament for the 2016 Olympics, with the overall top four teams booking their places at the Rio Games. Japan can still win an Olympic spot through the Asian qualifiers, which take place in Hong Kong on Nov. 7-8.
Of more pressing importance to Japan is the battle to avoid finishing bottom and being replaced by Russia in next year’s series, and with two rounds still to play, Segawa remains optimistic.
“It’s very difficult to get into the quarterfinals in the Sevens World Series, so it was a big motivation for us to get points here to help us avoid relegation,” said Segawa. “But we don’t want to be satisfied just with 10 points. We want to aim even higher.”
Japan began the day brightly, twice taking the lead against Argentina through captain Katsuyuki Sakai and Lomano Lava Lemeki, only to allow the South Americans to quickly equalize both times.
“Our biggest regret is that as soon as we scored, we gave up a try,” said Sakai. “But it’s to our credit that our defense held firm and we didn’t concede a try for the first seven minutes.
“If we defend well we can get results, but if you miss just one tackle, it will cost you. That’s something we have to think about. We can’t go around giving away easy tries.”
Lemeki almost won the game for Japan when he raced clear after the full-time buzzer, only for the referee to spot an infringement and end the game as a draw.
But the naturalized New Zealander would not be denied when play kicked off against Samoa, crossing the line to draw first blood for Japan after only 39 seconds.
Lemeki added another try to go with two more from Chihito Matsui, putting Japan on the brink of qualification and changing its recent bad fortune on home soil.
“Last year we drew against Argentina in our first game and then lost the next two matches,” said Segawa. “We didn’t want history to repeat itself — we wanted to make a new history.”
Series leader South Africa takes on Scotland in the quarterfinals on Sunday, while France plays England and New Zealand faces Canada.
Australia was the day’s biggest loser, suffering a shock 12-10 defeat to Portugal in its opening game and missing out on the quarterfinals despite beating New Zealand 19-14 with qualification already out of reach.
Japan now has the daunting task of stopping sevens powerhouse Fiji, and Segawa does not intend to let the south sea islanders cut loose.
“Fiji like to avoid the breakdown and run the ball, so we have to slow the game down,” said the head coach. “If we let them move the ball around, then we won’t be able to stop them. We need to keep the tempo as slow as possible.”