Following on from the recent Asian Games in Jakarta, the Asia Rugby Sevens Series 2018 comes at a time when there is a real buzz about the sport in the region.
This weekend’s tournament in Hong Kong is the first of three events for both the men and women in this year’s series with events to follow in Korea (29-30 September) and Sri Lanka (13-14 October).
Japan's men and women go into the series as defending champions, but with teams continuing their preparations for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, competition is expected to be fierce across the board.
With the support of a home crowd and buoyed by their historic gold medal at the Asian Games, Hong Kong will be among the favourites to challenge Japan for the men’s crown.
Ten of the side that beat Japan in the Asian Games final will be joined by Toby Fenn and Jack Neville for the opening tournament as Hong Kong look to gain revenge for last year’s disappointing 14-12 Cup final loss at Kings Park.
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Hong Kong's Max Denmark is definitely eager for his side to continue their journey following the success of the Asian Games.
HONG KONG'S GOLDEN MOMENT
“Winning the Asian Games is the most amazing thing I’ve done in rugby,” said Denmark. “It was made even more special seeing the reactions of guys like Salom and Jamie Hood because they missed out on gold twice and they finally achieved that.
“If I am honest, the Olympics is at the back of my mind. I try to focus on each tournament as it comes so for now all that’s on my mind right now is this weekend’s Asia Rugby tournament in Hong Kong.”
It's time! Here comes the first round of this year's Asia Rugby Sevens Series! pic.twitter.com/maYwvdmDdG— Asia Rugby (@asiarugby) September 13, 2018
In the men’s competition, the highest ranked side on the series after Japan will qualify to play in the Singapore round of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2019, and they will be joined by the next best team to take part in the Hong Kong qualifier tournament.
Hong Kong find themselves in Pool B with Korea, one of three different tournament winners on the 2017 series, as well as Malaysia and the Philippines.
Japan, meanwhile, take on a rapidly-improving Sri Lankan outfit, China and Chinese Taipei in Pool A.
SRI LANKA OUT TO MAKE HISTORY
Sri Lanka captain Surdarshana Muthuthanthri believes a first-ever Cup win on the Asia Rugby Sevens Series is not far away.
Having finished fourth in the Asian Games, following a narrow semi-final loss to runners-up Japan when they twice threw away the lead, the Tuskers know they will be there or thereabouts in this year’s series.
“We felt we deserved to be in that final and were disappointed not to come away with a medal,” said Muthuthanthri.
“It’s always important to keep improving, however, and our performances need to match that. We are looking forward to another tournament where we can keep working hard.”
In 2017, Sri Lanka finished fifth in Hong Kong before another fifth place in Korea. They saved their best performance until their home event, however, finishing third after losing to eventual winners Hong Kong in the Cup semi-finals.
Having appeared in two Cup finals in 2016 as well, Sri Lanka know they have the chance to make history.
“I don’t think a win on the Asia Rugby Sevens Series is far away,” added Muthuthanthri.
“We know what we need to do and will go out and do it. The more we keep playing together as a squad the more we will improve so it’s important we keep playing as a unit and working hard.”
Held shortly after Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017, last year’s Asia Rugby Women’s Sevens Series was a truncated two-legged affair in the interests of player welfare. However, with no such conflict of interests this time around, the format returns to three rounds.
Once again, Japan will be one of the teams to beat and the Sakura Sevens have named 10 of the side that beat China 7-5 to claim their first-ever Asian Games gold medal. Hana Nagata and Honoka Tsutsumi are the new faces after ousting Ano Kuwai and Noriko Taniguchi from the team.
Japan and Hong Kong have been paired together in the pool stages and their meeting in the final match on Friday could well determine who finishes top. They are joined in Pool C by Korea and a Thailand side that was perhaps the surprise package of the Asian Games. Despite not winning a medal in Indonesia, they beat Hong Kong to reach the Cup semi-finals before losing to China 29-5.
In the bronze medal match, they lost 29-7 to Kazakhstan but their performances impressed many watching on.
Coach Chawiatt Klongtrujrok was pleased with Thailand’s performances which have given them a platform from which to build on during the upcoming series.
“This year’s Asian Games had a special atmosphere with a very nice host in Indonesia. It felt good to be a part of that,” said Klongtrujrok.
“We hope to use our performance in Jakarta to continue our development and to compete with the best in the series.”
New HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series core team China are joined in Pool D by Sri Lanka, Kazakhstan and Singapore.
“Every opportunity to represent Singapore is always a special one,” said Singapore captain Alvinia Ow Yong. “This team has been together for four campaigns, so we are glad to have another opportunity to blood new players and continue our progress.”
All matches from both competitions will be streamed live and can be watched live on Asia Rugby’s Facebook page.