There was double delight for Japan as both the men’s and women’s teams became the final regional qualifiers for the Olympic Games Paris 2024 with victory in the Asia Rugby qualification tournament in Osaka.
Both teams competed in the inaugural Olympic rugby sevens in Rio in 2016 and were present again as hosts in Tokyo in 2021, and they will now complete a hat-trick of appearances in the French capital next year.
The women were first to qualify with a 21-14 win against China before the men staged a dramatic comeback to beat Hong Kong China by an identical scoreline.
Hong Kong China men’s bid to qualify for their first Olympics is not over, however, as the runners-up and third place team will get another chance to book their place in Paris via the Final Olympic Qualification Tournament in 2024.
China will join them in the men’s competition after a 36-0 win against UAE in the third-place play-off, while beaten finalists China and third-place team Hong Kong China will be chasing the final Olympic ticket to the women’s event.
With the Tokyo Olympics played behind closed doors, this was the first opportunity for the vast majority of Japan’s players to play in a major sevens tournament in front of their home fans.
Ultimately, they lived up to the occasion but both conceded the first score and were pushed all the way in their respective finals, having rarely been challenged in any of the other matches.
Sakura Sevens thankful for Ohtani double
Neither of the women’s finalists conceded a single point on day one, Japan beating Kazakhstan 43-0 and Thailand 19-0 in the three-team Pool D.
China’s progress was even more straightforward, scoring 26 tries in comprehensive victories over Hong Kong China 50-0, India 62-0 and Guam 52-0.
Both teams conceded for the first time in the semi-finals, but neither were to be denied a place in the final, the Sakura Sevens delighting the fans inside the Yodoko Sakura Stadium with a 33-5 win over Hong Kong China, while China saw off Thailand 29-5.
The final lived up to its billing as a match-up between the reigning Asia Rugby Sevens Series champions Japan and Asian Games gold medallists China as momentum swung one way and then the other.
The host nation were punished for an error-strewn opening when Yang Feifei burnt the defence wide out on the right to opening the scoring for China.
But Japan quickly composed themselves and a double from Mei Ohtani put them into a 14-7 half-time lead.
Japan captain Yume Hirano picked a hole in a tired-looking defence for try number three, but China were not done yet as Feifei got her second to close the gap to seven points.
The Sakura Sevens looked comfortable in running down the clock until they got turned over a second before the hooter.
It made for a grandstand finish but a huge tackle on halfway from Honoka Tsutsumi forced a mistake and China were penalised with the clock in the red to bring a breathtaking game to a close.
Heartbreak for Hong Kong China men
Hong Kong China’s men threatened to secure a place at their first Olympic Games with their impressive work at the breakdown frustrating Japan time and time again.
The source of their first points was a loose ball at the back of a ruck, Liam Doherty pouncing and showing a great turn of pace to score the opening try.
With this side needing a lift, Taiga Ishida showed great strength in the contact to bounce off two would-be tacklers to put Japan back on level terms.
But it wasn’t long before Hong Kong China reclaimed the lead, Russell Webb’s mastery with the boot setting up an opportunity for Liam Herbert.
Webb threaded a grubber kick through the defence and Herbert, who played like a number seven in 15s with his turnover ability, won the foot race to touch down under the posts.
After a succession of turnover penalties either way, Japan finally strung together enough phases to work a score for Osaka native Kippei Taninaka.
Only 70 seconds remained at that point and with the conversion going over to level the scores at 14-14, it looked as though the final was heading to extra-time.
However, Takamasa Maruo had other ideas as he twisted out of a tackle and reached out at full-stretch to score the match-winning try and bring the house down.
Earlier, Japan had booked their place in the final following a 21-5 win over UAE in the semi-final, this after they had comprehensively beaten India and Korea but had lost to China on day one.
Hong Kong China went through to the semi-finals with a 3-0 record in the pool phase before seeing off China 19-12 in the semi-finals.
As things stand, 11 teams have so far confirmed their participation at each event at the Olympic Games in Paris.
In the men’s event, hosts France, New Zealand, Argentina, Fiji and Australia (through the World Rugby Sevens Series 2023) have booked their place along with six regional winners in Uruguay (South America), Ireland (Europe), USA (North America), Kenya (Africa), Samoa (Oceania) and now Japan.
New Zealand, Australia, Ireland and USA (qualifiers through the World Series) and hosts France, meanwhile, have been joined by Brazil, Canada, Great Britain, South Africa, Fiji and Japan in the women’s tournament.