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Fri, 6 November 2015

Who Stands in Way of Hong Kongs Olympic Dream at Rugby Sevens Qualifiers?

While the Brave Blossoms of Japan are the favourites in both the mens and womens tournaments at this weekends Asia Rugby Sevens Qualifier at Hong Kong Stadium, the Hong Kong Sevens teams will be hoping home ground advantage and a solid preparation can help topple their more fancied opponents.

But the threats to Team Hong Kongs tilt at qualification for the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games run deeper than the Japanese. There are several opponents that could threaten both the mens and womens teams. Add the tension and nerves that come with high-stakes rugby and both Hong Kong outfits will have to be at their absolute best to finish on top this weekend.

World Rugbys Surprise Packet

Japan famously overcame South Africa in the World Cup for the 15-a-side game and they are now a top-10 international side. Rugby is on a high in Japan, and the mens sevens team is up there too.

Japan has had Hong Kongs measure so far this year, beating them twice in the Asia Rugby Sevens Series through September and October. Japan was a class above throughout the series, winning each game with an emphatic display. Hong Kong will take heart from its performance in the cup final in the last round of the series in Sri Lanka, where it pushed the Japanese all the way in a seven-point loss.

With a talent pool running to more than 100,000 players a number that dwarfs Hong Kongs few thousand Japan has a stock of professional players to turn to for big games. With the benefit of a full season in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series earlier this year, the team is battle-hardened and has big-game experience far superior to that of its rivals.

Japan, coached by Tomohiro Segawa, has named a strong 13-man squad for the tournament, with Katsuyuki Sakai and Lote Tuqiri a cousin of the code-hopping Australian - two of the chief playmakers tipped to cause headaches for their opponents. The good news for Hong Kong is if they finish top of Pool B, its likely they wont face Japan until Sundays final.

Japan squad: Yusaku Kuwazuru (c), Lote Tuqiri, Satoshi Oshima, Lomano Lemeki, Dai Ozawa, Shunya Goto, Masakatsu Hikosaka, Katsuyuki Sakai, Kazushi Hano, Teruya Goto, Kazuhiro Goya, Yoshikazu Fujita, Chihito Matsui.

Sri Lanka - Biggest Danger in Pool B

Hong Kong's sternest test in Pool B this weekend will come in the form of a Sri Lanka team that likes to play with width and move the ball quickly, often unpredictably. While Hong Kong comfortably accounted for Sri Lanka in both of their encounters at the Asia Rugby Sevens Series this year, coach Gareth Baber is expecting a contest.

Our biggest danger in all of it (Pool B) is Sri Lanka, Baber said. They wont be as physical as the likes of Korea and Japan, but they play a good brand of sevens.

Sri Lanka has shown it can consistently compete and only one point separated them from Hong Kong and South Korea in the final standings of the Asian Series. Hong Kong face Sri Lanka in the final fixture on Saturday, with the game set to have a big bearing on the make-up of Sundays finals.

Big, Strong South Korea

If the results fall in Hong Kongs favour, Pool-A-side South Korea shape up as Hong Kongs most likely semi-final opponent. The South Koreans aggression and strength are their best assets.

Surprisingly, the teams failed to meet this year in the Asia Rugby Sevens Series but South Korea finished third, equal on points with Hong Kong.

We are under no illusions about how tough it is to put our game in place against teams like Korea, Sri Lanka and Japan, Baber said. Obviously its my job to make sure that, come next weekend, we do work to our strengths and we play to our structures, are physical in what we do and accurate in what we do. That can create the luck you need to get yourself through.

Optimistic Outlook for Hong Kong Women

As with the mens contest, the Hong Kong women face a Japan side that seems to hold all the aces. Japan took out the Asia Rugby Sevens Series but it wasnt quite as clear cut as in the mens tournament, which gives Hong Kong reason to be optimistic. The womens combination claimed one win from three attempts against Japan this year and coach Anna Richards is confident there is little between her side and the tournament favourites.

Its going to be tough and we have to do it over two legs, which makes it a little bit tougher, Richards said. Its a good challenge for the girls.

Japan has named a squad of 14 that will be cut to 12 the day before the tournament, with Chiharu Nakamura to lead the side. They look set to field a powerful unit that will build its foundation around a rock-solid defence.

Japan squad: Nakamura Chiharu (c), Kanematsu Yuka, Takeuchi Aya, Kato Keiko, Suzuki Ayaka, Kuwai Ano, Yamaguchi Marie, Tomita Makiko Suzuki Misaki, Yokoo Chisato, Suzuki Yoko, Okuroda Yume, Koide Mifuyu, Shimizu Mayu.

China performed well in the Asian Series this year, finishing second but equal on points with Japan and just above Hong Kong. However, Hong Kong had Chinas measure in September, winning 19-10 and 24-5 in Qingdao.

Kazakhstan is the other side expected to push Hong Kong in the womens competition after some solid recent form. They showed what they are capable of in Qingdao, with huge wins over Sri Lanka (40-5) and Thailand (40-14) and a gutsy 12-10 victory over Japan.

See also: Pictures from Singha Thailand Sevens 2015 and also Cathay Pacific / HSBC Hong Kong Sevens 2015.

Hong Kong, Rugby, Sevens, Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, Olympics

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