Asia’s top national sides will battle for the region’s sole men’s and women’s rugby sevens berths at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio at the Hong Kong Stadium this weekend.
The winner of the 10-team men's competition, played out over two days, will advance as Asia's representative at Rio 2016, where rugby sevens will make its Olympic debut.
Hong Kong, meanwhile, forms the first part of a two-tournament qualification process for the six competing women’s teams. The second leg takes place in Tokyo on 28-29 November.
Hong Kong's men have been handed a favourable draw on home turf, with Pool B offering up matches against Sri Lanka, Malaysia, the Philippines and Iran.
Should they finish on top of their pool, they will most likely avoid playing Japan, their greatest rivals on the Asian rugby sevens circuit, until the final.
Japan claimed the Asian Sevens Series crown in mid-October with a perfect three-from-three record, and have had the upper hand against Hong Kong in recent clashes. However, it is only 12 months ago that Hong Kong defeated Japan 28-7 to win the Mumbai Sevens.
World Cup factor
While Hong Kong have home advantage, Japan will be hoping to draw on the inspiration of their countrymen’s superb Rugby World Cup 2015 campaign.
"The World Cup was inspiring," said Japanese captain Yusaku Kuwazuru. "Now it is up to us."
Brave Blossoms winger Yoshikazu Fujita (main picture), a try scorer against the USA at RWC 2015, is now hoping to help bring success to the sevens team. "We've really got the country's attention and now we have to hold it,” he said.
First up for Japan on Saturday are Pool A games against Korea, China, Singapore and Chinese Taipei.
"We've prepared well. We know Hong Kong Stadium, it is big and gets big crowds and it's an honour to play there," added Kuwazuru.
Hosts Hong Kong go into the ompetition largely injury-free and in-form after an encouraging showing at the Gold Coast Sevens in Australia, where they finished as Plate runners-up.
"I'm pleased with our overall performance and it was a good exercise for us to play against strong teams from New Zealand and Fiji," Hong Kong coach Gareth Baber said after the tournament. "Every game was tough and put us under pressure, which was the idea.
"Ultimately, we exposed the squad to six world-class, competitive games and came out with some wins and injury-free."
Korea finished third in the Asian Rugby Sevens Series 2015, level on points with runners-up Hong Kong and seven behind all-conquering Japan, who defeated them twice over the course of the series, 45-7 in the Cup final of the Thailand Sevens and 21-5 in the semi-final of the opening tournament in Qingdao, China.
The sides face off in the final game of Pool A.
Sri Lanka and China are expected to be amongst the challengers too, after strong performances in their home tournaments – including good performances against Japan - helped them to fourth and fifth place finishes on the series respectively.
Pool A: Japan, Korea, China, Singapore, Chinese Taipei
Pool B: Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Philippines, Iran
Hong Kong women hoping for home comforts
A three-way tie at the top of the overall Asian Women’s Sevens Series standings makes this weekend’s Hong Kong qualifier extremely hard to predict.
While Japan start as narrow favourites having won the series title on points differential, Hong Kong coach Anna Richards hopes that home-field advantage will work in her side’s favour.
“I think the girls really enjoy playing in Hong Kong in front of their family and friends,” she said. “Some people have says there is a lot of pressure on them playing at home, but I don't see that. I think there is a bit of home field advantage for our girls.”
Hong Kong will take to the field at the Hong Kong Stadium for the first time in six years when they run out for their opening game against Sri Lanka.
For Christy Cheng Ka Chi, who captains the side after Royce Chan Leong Sze failed to recover from injury, the idea of playing there with a place at the Olympics on the line is a precious opportunity.
“Every year we have wanted to do it because we have never had the chance to get into the stadium and it means a lot,” Cheng says. “A special occasion like the Olympics, it could be once in a lifetime for me, I am getting quite close to the end so it might not happen again for me in four years.”
Hong Kong achieved a fourth straight win against China this year when they defeated the then reigning Asian champions 24-15 in the final of the China Sevens.
“On our day we know we can beat China and Japan but we’ve got to be consistent over the two tournaments,” said Richards.
While Hong Kong have Asian series superstar Aggie Poon Pak Yan (pictured right) – scorer of 17 tries and 121 points across two tournaments – in their ranks, according to four-time Women's Rugby World Cup winner Richards Japan’s strength lies in the collective.
“They’re just such hard workers and they’ve got a couple of x-factor players too,” she said. “They know how to play intelligent rugby when it matters. Just look at how they played the conditions in the (World Series qualifier) semi-final against Netherlands. They deserved their win.”
Gollings' bid for more sevens glory
China's women are coached by the all-time record points scorer on the men's series, Ben Gollings.
Gollings’ name is synonymous with rugby sevens, having enjoyed a stellar 11-year career at the top with England which brought him 2,652 points by the time he retired in 2011.
Leading China’s women into the Olympics would no doubt be right up there in his long list his career achievements.
“China of all nations are a huge Olympic nation so there is a lot riding on it. The standard of the women’s game has been growing and growing so it’s going to be tough but that’s what we want, we want the game to be competitive.”
While qualification for Rio is Gollings’ immediate focus, developing sevens in China is a long-term goal.
“I’m here to build up our programme and put a little bit more structure in place,” he said. “I’ve only been here a short while now but it’s been good, it’s been a challenge but a good challenge.
“Sometimes the language barrier is a little bit difficult in terms of knowing what you’re saying is getting through but on the whole the players are pretty reactive and listen well.
“I think there is quite a lot of potential here. There are some good athletes and hopefully we can drag a few more out of the woodwork.
“All the provinces have professional teams so they’ve got the opportunities and they are training enough, it is just a matter of highlighting what training they should and shouldn’t be doing and developing them in the right areas.”
Women's pool: Japan, China, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Sri Lanka, Guam.