Hosts Ireland and Japan had cause to celebrate after winning their semi-finals at the UCD Bowl in Dublin to secure a core team place on the HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series in 2015-16.
Ireland were the first to claim their spot on the series with a determined 26-14 victory over South Africa, captain Lucy Mulhall scoring two of her side's four tries as they avenged a loss to the Springbok Women in the pool stages amid defeaning noise from the home crowd.
The Irish were a core team on the series in 2013-14, but for Japan it is the first time they will play in every round. The Japanese had impressed all weekend with their play and ran out 10-5 winners over the Netherlands, two first-half tries by captain Chiharu Nakamura and Yume Okuroda enough to hand the Dutch more heartbreak after they also missed out on a place in the global Olympic Repechage this summer.
Ireland and Japan will join defending champions New Zealand, Canada, Australia, England, USA, France, Russia, Fiji and Spain on the 2015-16 Series.
With the pressure off both sides in the final, it was Ireland who looked on course for victory after two tries from Amee Leigh Crowe gave them a 12-0 advantage as the home crowd cheered every tackle, turnover and break they made. However, Japan continued to battle bravely and the reinforcements sent on by coach Keiko Asami had the desired affect with his side dominating play in the final five minutes, setting up camp in Ireland's half.
Their determination was rewarded as first Yoko Suzuki backed herself to run in at the corner and then Nakamura scored from close range to close to within two points after the conversion bounced off the posts. The scene was set for a tense finale and when Ashleigh Baxter was sin-binned for a dangerous tackle, up stepped Okuroda to calmly drop-kick a penalty to seal an unlikely comeback for Japan.
In the other finals on Sunday, Kenya scored a length of the field try late on to win the Bowl, while Brazil beat Hong Kong to win the Plate.
With cheers ringing out every time an Irish player touched the ball, the team responded with an impressive display to beat South Africa 26-14, learning from their mistakes in the pool defeat and playing with more aggression at the breakdown. They also refused to give up on anything, a fact highlighted perfectly by Alison Miller chasing down Veroershka Grain to deny what seemed a certain try.
Tries from Katie Fitzhenry, captain Lucy Mulhall and Miller gave Ireland a 19-7 advantage at half-time with Zenay Jordaan touching down for South Africa. Grain did score at the start of the second period but another try from the outstanding Mulhall meant that Irish fans could celebrate long before the final whistle knowing that it was mission accomplished.
"It is everything that we have ever wanted, last year was a very difficult year being off the world series and we set sights on August and this tournament in qualifying," admitted Mulhall. "I think playing against the top teams is the best way that you can learn and you learn so much quicker than you could ever learn on the training fields. It is going to be a big year of rugby for us but we are very excited."
That was a sentiment echoed by Marie Yamaguchi after Japan held firm in the second half to beat the Netherlands 10-5 and join Ireland as a core team on the series. The Japanese, once again cheered throughout by a group of young children shouting "Nippon, Nippon", started impressively with captain Chiharu Nakamura and Yume Okuroda giving them a lead which proved too big for the Netherlands to overhaul.
The Netherlands gave themselves hope when Anne Hielckert crossed for a try early in the second half, but they were unable to find the converted try they needed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The loss means yet more heart-break for the Netherlands, who have fallen at the final hurdle in the last two Women's Sevens Series qualifiers and the European Olympic repechage tournament in the last 12 months.
"We definitely can compete against Australia, New Zealand or high quality teams so we are so excited. We have had lots of camps and team building so we trust each other and we are one team so that is why we can qualify. We have to thank our fans, when we are playing we can hear the yelling so that is why we have lots of power so that we could well I think.
"We have a chance to play against lots of nationalities now so that means for Japanese rugby we can have a purpose for the future so that is very important for us. We proved we can play against overseas teams, so that means for Japan we have a future and that is a great thing."
South Africa bounced back from the disappointment of losing to Ireland to hand the Netherlands a second defeat in a row, 12-0 in the third place play-off. Mathrin Simmers side-stepping her way through the Dutch defence to race away for the opening try on the stroke of half-time, before captain Jordaan made certain of victory after shrugging off a number of tackles to touch down.
Earlier in the quarter-finals, South Africa were made to work hard for their 21-5 victory over Hong Kong, tries from Simmers, Grain and Jordaan putting the Springbok women within one victory of regaining their core team status on the series. They will face Ireland again in that crucial match, after the hosts ran out 27-5 winners over China, two tries in quick succession in the second half by Claire Keohane making certain of victory to the delight of the crowd.
"It is everything that we have ever wanted ... It is going to be a big year of rugby for us but we are very excited."
The third quarter-final was a tight affair in the first half with Marie Yamaguchi making the breakthrough just before the whistle blew for the interval. The impressive Yamaguchi added a second before Mateitoga Bogidraumainadave made certain of Japan's second win over Wales, this time 17-5. The last quarter-final was an end-to-end affair with tries from Jannicke Jackelien Ijdens and Johanna Marije van Rossum tries securing a narrow 12-0 win for the Netherlands over Brazil. The Brazilians had a chance to sneak it after a wayward Dutch pass but couldn't find a score to hit the front for the first time.
Rio 2016 hosts Brazil proved too strong for Hong Kong in the Plate final, tries from Luiza Campos in the first half and Claudia Teles, who ran in from long range, and Marian Ramalho after the break sealing a 17-0 victory. There were still plenty of positives for Hong Kong to take from the tournament, having show the development they are making under four-time Women's Rugby World Cup winner Anna Richards.
Jasmine Joyce and Ffion Bowen both scored braces as Wales finished the tournament on a high with a 29-7 victory over China to claim seventh place overall. The Welsh raced into a 22-0 lead with Jessica Kavanagh also getting on the scoreboard before Sichao Sun raced away for China's only try in the match, the Asian side never really recovering from seeing their hopes of regaining core team status ended after the loss to Ireland in Cup quarter-finals.
Tries from flyer Pak Yan Poon and Ka Chi Christy Cheng gave Hong Kong a 14-0 lead against China and the two conversions by Pak Yan Poon proved vital to securing the 14-10 victory after China fought back with two tries, the final whistle sparking great celebrations. Hong Kong will play Rio 2016 hosts Brazil in the final after they beat Wales 10-5, avenging their defeat in the pool stages.
The Bowl final looked to be heading for extra-time until a length of the field try from Linet Arasa secured a 5-0 win for Kenya over Colombia. The Kenyans had a lineout deep in their own half but managed the spread the ball along the line in front of their posts out to Arasa and, once she had rounded her marker, she pinned her ears back and raced the length of the pitch to score the winning try, much to the delight of the Kenya fans. The players were equally elated and didn't want to leave the pitch after the presentation, happy to keep dancing for their fans in the crowd.
Two tries apiece for Janet Okello and Janet Owino saw Kenya book their place in the Bowl final with a comprehensive 31-0 victory over Mexico. The battle to face them in that final was a much closer affair, Colombia claiming the first try on the stroke of half-time after being camped in Samoa's half for much of the match. Samoa hit back to tie it at 5-5 after a great break by Justine Manaia Iopu resulted in a try for Soteria Pulumu. However, Colombia capitalised on their player advantage to score the winning try with the final play through Nicole Acevedo to triumph 12-5.
DAY ONE ROUND-UP
Japan caused the first surprise of the qualifier by beating Rio 2016 hosts Brazil, who played five rounds of the series last season, 19-10. Inspired by the lively Marie Yamaguchi, the Japanese got the start they were hoping for and although Brazil captain Paula Ishibashi raced down the touchline to score at the end it was nothing more than a consolation try. Wales also made a winning start, recovering from conceding an early try to score five of their own in a 33-12 victory over Samoa. The Samoans found Wales' pace hard to handle, but Soteria Pulumu ran in for two tries in the defeat.
The Japanese, cheered on by chants of "Nippon, Nippon" from children beating drums in the crowd throughout the match, showed their opening win was no fluke by backing it up with a 17-14 victory over Wales. They left it late, though, needing a pushover try by Yume Okuroda in the penultimate play to seal the come-from-behind win. Samoa again scored the first try in their second match, but it was Brazil who ran out 42-5 winners with Haline Scatrut scoring two of their tries as good foot-work saw them find gaps in the defence.
Top spot in the pool was wrapped up with another impressive display with Okuroda adding another brace as Japan ran out 33-0 winners over Samoa. The impressive duo of Yamaguchi and powerful Mateitoga Bogidraumainadave also getting their names on the scoresheet. The final Pool A match saw Wales overcome Brazil 17-0 with Jasmine Joyce and Rhian Nokes among the try-scorers to the delight of coach Richie Pugh, the former Welsh sevens player.
"We've had two good results and a third against Japan, which we could and probably should have won. It's been positive and we're in a good position," Pugh said.
"Sevens is a brilliant game and to see how the women perform out there, there are some strong teams here. It's a good game and once it is showcased at the Olympics people are going to be surprised how well the female side of the game is played and it is going to go from strength to strength."
In the opening matches the greater experience of China and the Netherlands was evident as they eased past Kenya and Colombia respectively. China, a core team on the series last season, triumphed 29-7 with Yuanyuan Lu and Shichao Sun both scoring two tries. The Netherlands then had too much pace and power for Colombia, Johanne Marije van Rossum scoring two of her side's five tries in a 33-0 win.
Van Rossum was in destructive mood again in the Netherlands' second match, scoring a hat-trick in a 22-7 win over Kenya, who showed improvement from their first match and scored a great breakaway try through Janet Okello to bring their fans to their feet. China also made it two wins from two, although only after scoring three second-half tries against a Colombian side showing some of the form that saw them qualify from the South American regional qualifier for Rio 2016.
To the delight of the Kenya fans their side picked up a first victory, 12-7 over Colombia, in their final match of the day with Okella again scoring a long-range breakaway try. Although they ended the day without a win, Colombia did cross the line for the first time, through Isabel Romero. The expected pool decider saw the Netherlands run out 22-10 winners over China, tries from Elke van Meer, Pleuni Kievit and Joyce van Altena against the side coached by former England Sevens legend Ben Gollings.
"We are really happy with the three wins," said Van Rossum. "We had composure, we worked as a team and everyone did their own job. In defence we stopped them and it's good to see. Tomorrow, all the good things from today, let's put them together and an extra step up and we will be fine."
South Africa, like China hoping to regain their status as a core team on the series by reaching the final, started in impressive fashioon with Lorinda Brown scoring two of their tries in a 31-5 win over Hong Kong. The biggest cheer, though, was reserved for Pak Yan Poon's breakaway try. Ireland, to the delight of the crowd, were ruthless against Mexico, dominating the restart and breaking the line with ease to run in 10 tries in a 64-0 win watched by Ireland men's coach Joe Schmidt.
The green flags were waving in the crowd again as Alison Miller ran in four tries in Ireland's 50-0 defeat of Hong Kong, the hosts once more claiming virtually ever restart to deny their opponents much possession and make it two wins from two. South Africa were equally strong with Marithy Pienaar scoring two of their tries in a 38-0 victory over Mexico to set up the expected pool decider with Ireland.
Hong Kong gave their New Zealand coach, four-time Women's Rugby World Cup winner Anna Richards, reason to smile in their final match with a 48-0 defeat of Mexico, the Asian side having too much pace and able to burst through the defence at will with flyer Pak Yon Poon scoring five tries. It was left to South Africa to finish on a high with a 17-5 win over hosts Ireland, Veroeshka Grain's acrobatic roll over the line in the final minute securing the win and top spot.
"To play Ireland in front of their own crowd is always difficult," admitted coach Renfred Dazel. "I think for the first time ever the girls won three on the run and I think it is all down to the attitude and just keeping to the standards and sticking to the structure that the team want.
"Going into day two, if you win three games you can get an easier quarter-final but whoever comes it is going to be hard."
Fixtures and results
China 29-7 Kenya
Netherlands 33-0 Colombia
Brazil 10-19 Japan
Wales 33-12 Samoa
South Africa 31-5 Hong Kong
Ireland 64-0 Mexico
Netherlands 22-7 Kenya
China 26-0 Colombia
Wales 14-17 Japan
Brazil 42-5 Samoa
Ireland 50-0 Hong Kong
South Africa 38-0 Mexico
Kenya 12-7 Colombia
China 10-22 Netherlands
Japan 33-0 Samoa
Brazil 0-17 Wales
Hong Kong 48-0 Mexico
South Africa 17-5 Ireland
South Africa 21-5 Hong Kong
Ireland 27-5 China
Japan 17-5 Wales
Netherlands 12-10 Brazil
Kenya 31-0 Mexico
Colombia 12-5 Samoa
Plate semi-final - Hong Kong 14-10 China
Plate semi-final - Wales 5-10 Brazil
Cup semi-final - South Africa 14-26 Ireland
Cup semi-final - Japan 10-5 Netherlands
11th place play-off - Mexico 0-22 Samoa
Bowl final - Kenya 5-0 Colombia
Seventh place play-off - China 5-29 Wales
Plate final - Hong Kong 0-17 Brazil
Third place play-off - South Africa 12-0 Netherlands
Cup final - Ireland 12-13 Japan
All photos, credit: INPHO