HONG KONG – Fresh off the exploits of the Brave Blossoms at the Rugby World Cup, the Japan men’s and women’s sevens teams will be looking to book their tickets for next year’s Rio Olympics via the Asian qualifying tournament in Hong Kong this weekend.
With rugby marking its return to the Olympics for the first time since 1924, qualifying is a convoluted process.
The top-four ranked teams from last season’s men’s HSBC Sevens World Series and women’s World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series qualify automatically, as does host Brazil, while regional qualifiers and a 16-team cross-continental repechage tournament determine the remaining seven teams.
Fiji, South Africa, New Zealand and England were the top four finishers in the HSBC Series, while New Zealand, Canada, Australia and England were the top four women’s teams. The England teams qualify for Rio 2016 as Great Britain.
France, the United States and Argentina have qualified from their respective men’s regional competitions while France, the United States and Colombia have booked their ticket for the women’s competitions, bringing the total number of qualified teams in their respective tournaments to eight of the maximum 12.
And this month attention turns to Africa and Asia.
The format of the Hong Kong competition for the men is straightforward with 10 teams vying for one automatic spot in Rio de Janeiro.
Japan lines up against South Korea, China, Singapore and Taiwan in pool A, while Pool B sees Hong Kong up against Sri Lanka, Malaysia, the Philippines and Iran.
Japan comes into the competition as the reigning Asian Sevens Series champion after finishing the tournament with a perfect three-from-three record, winning finals in Qingdao, China (28-12 over China), Bangkok (45-7 over South Korea) and Colombo (29-22 over Hong Kong).
The women’s competition sees a different format with the top six countries in the region — Japan, China, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Sri Lanka and Guam — playing in a two-leg tournament, the second round set for Tokyo on Nov. 28-29.
With Japan in the midst of rugby fever as a result of the Brave Blossoms’ exploits in England, the players are aware of the weight of responsibility on their shoulders.
“The World Cup was inspiring,” Japan captain Yusaku Kuwazuru told the South China Morning Post earlier this week. “Now it is up to us.”
Yoshikazu Fujita is the only player from the World Cup squad to double up in the sevens team.
“We’ve really got the country’s attention and now we have to hold it,” he said.
And as Kuwazuru, who took over the captaincy from Katsuyuki Sakai in August, pointed out, Japan is in the spotlight on the field as well.
“We’ve prepared well. We know the Hong Kong Stadium, it is big and gets big crowds and it’s an honor to play there,” he said. “Every team here has been building up, we know that and we have to be prepared as they will throw everything at us.”
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