A climactic season of regional sevens rugby begins with the start of the Asia Rugby Sevens Series this weekend in Qingdao, China.
Hong Kong are the defending Asian men’s champion after sweeping to victory in all three events on last year’s series.
They are drawn in Pool A with the Philippines and the United Arab Emirates, who were drafted in as the 12th team as Iran, who qualified for the series and Olympic regional qualifiers, are not participating in the opening tournament.
Sri Lanka, Singapore and Kazakhstan make up Pool B, hosts China are in Pool C alongside Asian Games gold medallists Japan and Chinese Taipei, while Pool D comprises Korea - who broke through to reach two tournament finals on last year’s Asian Series - along with Thailand and Malaysia.
The top two finishers from the series are ensured of a place in the qualifying tournament for the 2016-17 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series next year.
But looming above all this season is the Asia Rugby regional sevens Olympic qualifier in November, which will put Asia’s sole men’s team through to the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil, where rugby sevens will make its debut.
The single-event Olympic qualifier will be held in Hong Kong on 7-8 November with the hosts facing off against 11 other regional teams.
Hong Kong’s Player of the Year Max Woodward (main picture) has been charged with leading his side’s bid to retain their series title and qualify for Rio 2016.
“Max has the personality and character to lead this team. He has shown strong consistency in his appearances at both sevens and 15s and has huge respect within the group,” said Hong Kong coach Gareth Baber.
HK women aiming for China treble
In the women’s event, all eyes will be on China's clash with Hong Kong in the final pool fixture on day one.
China are the defending series champions but were beaten by bronze medallists Hong Kong in last month's HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series qualifier in Ireland as well as in the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Sevens back in March.
This is the first of two series events that will serve as the prelude to a two-leg qualification series for the 2016 Olympic Games in November.
Eight Asian women’s teams are taking part across both the series and Olympic qualifiers: Hong Kong and China are joined by Japan, Kazakhstan, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Uzbekistan.
“It is the dream of every girl in the programme to play in the Olympics, but Asia is still extremely important to us,” said Hong Kong women’s coach Anna Richards. “It’s good that we have two tough tournaments on the Series before November - and against the teams we will play in the Olympic qualifiers.”
Richards hopes the experience of the qualifier in Ireland will stand her side in good stead.
“Tournaments give you momentum,” the four-time Women's Rugby World Cup winner with New Zealand said. “It was tough in Ireland because we hadn’t had a tournament in four months. There was a sizeable time difference, conditions were cold and wet and we hadn’t travelled that far before for a tournament. Then losing Royce (captain Royce Chan) to injury in the first game put a bit of strain on the team and that may have shown in the Plate final versus Brazil. We were a bit tired. But considering all this I was pleased with how we played in Ireland.”
Hong Kong will be grouped with hosts China, Sri Lanka and Singapore in Qingdao. Japan, who qualified for the Women’s Sevens Series in Ireland as winners of the tournament, head a physical Pool B alongside Kazakhstan, Thailand and Uzbekistan.