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Japan women's rugby sevens team books spot at Rio Olympics

by Rich Freeman

Kyodo

Japan will have two teams in Rio when rugby makes its return to the Olympics next year after the Sakura Sevens joined the men in booking their tickets to Brazil on Sunday.

The Japan women’s team earned its berth with a 14-7 win over Kazakhstan in the final of the second leg of the Asia Rugby Sevens Qualifier at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground.

The victory avenged an earlier 7-5 loss in the pool stage to the same opponent and ensured Japan’s super run in international rugby continues.

Japan’s men qualified three weeks ago in a one-off tournament in Hong Kong, and the women’s success means that since Sept. 19 when the Brave Blossoms beat South Africa at the Rugby World Cup, Japan national teams have played 22 games and lost just three — to Scotland at the World Cup, to China in the pool stage of the first leg of the women’s sevens qualifiers and to Kazakhstan.

“I’m really proud that we were able to qualify for the Olympics with the men’s team,” said head coach Keiko Asami. “It’s the first time sevens will be in the games (the 15-man game having been an Olympic sport until 1924) and it’s not often that both Japanese men’s and women’s teams have qualified in a team sport.”

Japan opened the day with a 49-0 win over Sri Lanka but hopes of qualifying a game early were dashed in the final pool game when Balzhan Koishybayeva converted Anna Yakovleva’s try after Ano Kuwai had given Japan a 5-0 halftime lead.

“We gave away too many penalties and were too focused on the size of the Kazakhstan players,” Asami said of the defeat.

For the neutral it ensured the final was a game worth waiting for, but for the home fans it meant an anxious three-hour wait.

But it was worth it in the end as Japan kept its composure despite the pressure of the occasion.

“Listening to my teammates sing the national anthem before the game really helped me to relax,” said Chisato Yokoo.

Kazakhstan needed to win the final by 23 points or more to ruin Japan’s dream of qualifying in front of its home fans, as points difference over the two tournaments would determine the standings if the two sides finished with two wins apiece — Japan having beaten Kazakhstan twice in Hong Kong three weeks ago.

Ill-discipline, however, was to cost Vyacheslav Kozmenko’s side.

Time and time again the Kazakhs were penalized at the breakdown, while Japan avoided the penalties of the previous encounter, producing a disciplined 20 minutes of rugby.

Chiharu Nakamura scored Japan’s opener following a good break by Marie Yamaguchi and Yume Okuroda added the conversion as Japan went into the break leading 7-0.

A try by Kundyzay Barktybayeva, converted by Koishybayeva, brought a sudden silence to the crowd, but 19-year-old Mifuyu Koide — one of the stars of the weekend — ensured the noise returned when she went over under the posts three minutes from time.

Okuroda once again added the extras before Japan was able to run down the clock and start the celebrations.

“It’s really awesome,” said Nakamura. “Every game was really tough. We really felt the responsibility of being the Japan national team and now we feel responsibility as Asia’s representative at Rio.”

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