Eight men’s and seven women’s teams are making their way to Osaka ready to compete for a place at the Olympic Games Paris 2024 at this weekend’s Asia Rugby qualification tournament.
In the men’s competition, the teams have been split into two pools of four. Japan are in Pool A with China, Korea – the only Asian team other than the host nation to compete at an Olympics – and India.
Hong Kong China, arguably the most experienced of the teams, head up Pool B and face UAE, Singapore and Thailand as they bid to make it to their first Olympics.
Japan, Thailand and Kazakhstan, meanwhile, are the three teams in Pool D in the women’s competition, while China, who along with the Sakura Sevens are the only other team with past Olympic experience, are joined in Pool E by Hong Kong China, India and Guam.
Japan have appeared in both rugby sevens competitions at the Olympic Games to date, the men losing to eventual gold medal winners Fiji in the semi-finals at Rio 2016, and then falling short of the knockout stages as hosts in Tokyo four years later.
The winners of the respective tournaments will punch their tickets to Paris, leaving just one spot left to fill in each 12-team event before the Olympics line-up is complete.
However, the dream will not be over for second and third highest ranked teams as they will go on to compete in the Final Olympic Qualification Tournament in 2024.
Sakura Sevens bringing their game faces to training ahead of next weekends’ Asian Rugby #Paris2024 Olympic Qualifiers! 😉— Japan Rugby (@JRFURugby) November 10, 2023
📆 18-19 November
🏟️ Yoriko Sakura Stadium, Osaka
🎫 Get your tickets here: https://t.co/ZHyIX7btpn#Sakura7s | #Rugby7s pic.twitter.com/NP7Fwqs4hK
The Sakura Sevens drew a blank in both their appearances, a defeat to China costing them a chance to progress beyond the pool stage last time out in Tokyo.
The Tokyo Olympics was played a year late and behind closed doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic so this will be the first time that any of the players in red and white, on the men’s team at least, will have played in a global sevens tournament in front of a home crowd.
For Osaka native and men’s captain Taisei Hayasi, it will be made all the more special with the tournament being played in his home city.
“This is my seventh season as a sevens player and this coming qualifying tournament is the first official tournament for us to play here in our country. So, I am happy about showing our game to our people here this time,” he said.
“It would be great to play at home and win the tournament and share that experience with our people. I am very much looking forward to it.”
Growing in strength
Since suffering relegation from the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series and missing out on the new HSBC SVNS series as a result, Japan have responded well by winning the Asia Rugby Sevens Series and collecting the bronze medal at the Asian Games.
With momentum behind them, Hayasi hopes they can secure their place at Paris 2024 and compete on the world’s biggest sporting stage.
“For me as a player, it would be a pleasure to win the qualification tournament and play against strong teams on the big stage (at the Olympics),” Hayasi added.
“Since I’ve got a feeling that we are getting stronger and stronger the more we spend time together, it would be fun to play against them with this Japan team.
“For Japan and sevens rugby in Japan, we hardly ever have an opportunity to show our performance widely to our people and the Olympics is the event that can draw the greatest attention from them.”
Hong Kong China have been identified by Hayasi as their “greatest rivals” but Japan head coach Simon Amor says there are several teams capable of booking their ticket to Paris.
“The top four teams in Asia – Hong Kong, Japan, China and Korea – are really stepping up and UAE are also rightly in the mix, they’ve got a nice blend of Islanders in there, so it’s going to be a nice tussle.
“If the Asia Sevens Series/Asian Games is anything to go by then there will be some high quality rugby going on, some fast-paced, edge-of-the-seat stuff.
“Asia is a brilliant place for rugby, there is such diversity of play in the style of the teams which makes it so exciting to watch.”
Big ticket focus
For Yume Hirano, the Sakura Sevens captain, the important thing is to make sure her team don’t let the occasion, and the prize at stake, deflect them from their qualification goal.
“I think we are preparing well for the tournament. I don’t think we need to do anything special because we play in the Olympic qualifiers. We will stick to what we should do and play our game,” she said.
“As we know that things won’t go easy in Asia and you can’t expect to win by playing only with fine skills, we should also be prepared to play ugly and with dedication. Every one of us on the team is pretty much aware of that.
“We want to be the one who go to the Olympics, and that determination can be shown in our play.”
The Sakura Sevens are the Asia Rugby Sevens Series champions but missed out on the gold medal at the Asian Games to China, who Hirano identifies as their biggest threat this weekend.
“They have physical abilities and many of their players have good height and speed,” she said.
“I am sure they can be well prepared to play us. It seems that they are clear about what they need to do and they have the ability to execute that. We cannot afford to lose to them.”
Qualifying for the Olympics, Hirano says, would be massive for the profile of women’s rugby in Japan.
“It’s a big tournament to be held once in four years and can be the biggest target for athletes. I myself want to produce good results in the Olympics, for sure, and all our team-mates want to play and win a medal there.
“I want to become a world champion whenever I can get a chance, in the Olympics or the World Series or the World Cup.
“The Olympics has a stronger influential impact to people in general and it is important for us to produce good results and boost women’s rugby in Japan.
“For rugby lovers, they watch the World Series, but for those who don’t really know about rugby, the Olympics are the best one to draw their attentions to the game.”
The Sakura Sevens will be the last of the seven women’s teams to take to the field at the Yodoko Sakura Stadium on Saturday, when they take on Kazakhstan in match nine.
Kazakhstan will have already played a game by then , having been given the honour of kicking off the tournament against Thailand.
The men’s tournament begins with a match between two big, physical sides in China and Korea, while Japan and India come up against each other in the following fixture.
As things stand, 10 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 five regional winners in Uruguay (South America), Ireland (Europe), USA (North America), Kenya (Africa) and Samoa (Oceania).
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 and, most recently, Fiji in the women’s tournament.
And now it’s the turn of Asia’s finest teams to try and make it to Paris.