Capping an incredible couple of days for Japanese Rugby, Japan secured an impressive double in the third and final leg of the Asia Rugby Sevens held at the Racecourse Grounds in Colombo, as both their Men’s and Women’s team came away comfortable victors.
The women’s win sees them make it three out of three in the 2019 Asia Rugby Sevens, having already won the first two legs in South Korea and China, a repeat of last year’s clean sweep. On the men’s side it was a straight shootout between Japan and Hong Kong for the overall title, with both having won one leg apiece coming in to the Sri Lanka leg, but despite a strong showing from Hong Kong it was the favoured Japan that held on for the win.
To crown the achievement, Japan Men’s Chihito Matsui took home the Highest Try Scorer and Highest Points Scorer awards, with 47 points in total over the course of the two-day tournament.
Men’s Final: Japan 17 - 12 Hong Kong
The men’s final provided a fitting climax to an exhilarating couple of days of fast-paced Rugby Sevens action, as a proverbial game of two halves brought to life what had initially looked a fairly one-sided affair.
Coming in to this final leg, Japan had tasted success in South Korea but had been stunned by an industrious Chinese outfit in the semi’s last time round in China. This had seen Hong Kong take the honours in the second leg, and now it was time for the two pre-tournament favourites to face off.
In the first half Japan stamped their authority, as their withering pace and strength proved too much for their opponents, and three unanswered tries (one each for Chihiro Matsui, Jose Seru and Lote Tuqiri) was fitting reward for their first half dominance.
The second half however proved to be a much more evenly contested affair, as Japan’s defence was tested far more frequently. In fact, their defence was required to come to their rescue time and again after Hong Kong burst into life midway through the second half.
First, following a period of extended pressure, Max Denmark managed to break through on the right flank to give Hong Kong a glimmer of hope with a breakaway try. Then, immediately from the restart Japan were forced on the defensive again, eventually conceding a penalty right on the goal line. The next phase began from the resulting scrum as the clock ticked down. With less than two minutes left on the clock, Japan’s defence knew it just had to hold on, and several goal line interventions ensured Hong Kong would not be afforded even the hint of a game tying effort.
Hong Kong eventually managed to work a try for Raif Morrison, which was converted easily by Ben Rimene, but the late surge proved to be too little too late, as the clock had already ticked past the 14 minute mark, and all that was left was for the ref’s final whistle.
“First of credit to Hong Kong, it was an extremely closely contested final,” said Japan Captain Yoshihiro Noguchi after the game. “On behalf of the team, I also want to thank all the fans that travelled long distances to support us. Thank you also for the hospitality shown to us by Sri Lanka Rugby. This win is a testament to the hard work we as a team have put in over the years, and we hope to keep improving.”
Women’s Final: Japan 26 - 5 Thailand
Just by making it to the final Thailand had made history, the achievement their best ever finish in a Rugby Sevens series regardless of result. It was therefore incredibly unfortunate they came up against a Japan side that have seemingly forgotten what it is like to lose.
After an initial period where Thailand went toe to toe with the more experienced Japanese, holding firm in the face of nimble movement and and even more nimble ball handling, eventually the pressure told, as Japan’s relentless press finally manufactured an opening. Once that first try was scored the proverbial floodgates opened, and Japan managed two further tries before halftime, effectively putting the game to bed then and there.
The try on the stroke of halftime was particularly telling; the Thai players, patently awaiting the halftime break, were toyed with by some swift Japanese lay offs on the inside left channel as their tiring defence was carved open for game-breaking third try.
The second half was more of the same as Japan’s greater fitness began to show, and unsurprisingly Thailand could do little as Japan scored their fourth try of the game. However the indomitable spirit of the Thai players was not to be bowed, and they did manage to secure a consolation try in the dying seconds through Wannaree Meechok. There was just enough time for a restart and another attack, but Japan ensured that there would be no further drama closing down the game at the first available opportunity.
For Japan, the ever impressive Honoka Tsutsumi ended the game with two tries, while Wakaba Hara and Yume Hirano had one apiece.
“Congratulations to Thailand for making it this far for the first time in their history, it truly is a great achievement,” stated Japan Women’s Captain Raichieru Miyo. “Next, I just want to thank my teammates for the hard work they have put in over the years, and we’re all extremely proud of what we have been able to achieve in recent years. Thank you also to our loyal fans who have always been their for us.”
The Sri Lankan journey
Sri Lanka’s journey through this season’s Asia Rugby Sevens has been one of slow but steady progress, and this theme continued once more over the course of the two-day final leg. While their fourth place finish matched their result from the second leg in China, and bettered their fifth place finish in the opening leg in South Korea, their performances in this final leg, boosted by a buoyant home support, were something to definitely build on. And the signs were promising from the get go.
Having been paired alongside eventual finalists Hong Kong in the group stages, Sri Lanka’s opening fixture against South Korea was virtually a must-win, with both sides expected to beat UAE but neither confident of securing a win against the dangerous Hong Kong.
Prior to start of the tournament Sri Lankan Captain Danush Dayan had spoken of the double-edged sword home support afforded, the pressure of expectation balanced out by their ability to be an extra man. But Sri Lanka’s 24-10 win, courtesy of two tries and a conversion from the impressive Kevin Dixon, meant that it was the latter effect which prevailed, as a raucous home crowd were given something to truly shout about.
Even in 35-0 and 45-0 defeats at the hands of Hong Kong (group stage) and Japan (semi-final), respectively, the crowd never let up. In the end, their unyielding support was rewarded. Not with a win, no, but with a glimpse of what could be in the future.
In Sri Lanka’s 35-10 win over UAE, the crowd were treated to Sri Lanka’s trademark pace and verve, with Reeza Raffaideen coming away with two of the five Sri Lankan tries in the game, while Dixon was responsible for three conversions.
Then in the third place playoff against China, despite a 27-12 defeat, Sri Lanka once again gave a good account of themselves. Having gone 10-0 down early in the game, Sri Lanka responded positively, with Captain Dayan was the beneficiary of some outstanding running from Dixon, who provided a dedicate lay off for Dayan to see Sri Lanka on the scoreboard. And while China would again score towards the end of the first half to go into the break with a 17-5 lead, Sri Lanka would come out in the second half reinvigorated.
Sri Lanka’s high intensity play and swift ball movement saw the returning Buddima Priyantha released down the wing, and his electric pace meant the Chinese trackers were always chasing his coattails. Following Dixon’s conversion Sri Lanka had brought the deficit back down to five points, but in the end China’s superior fitness proved the difference.
Several Chinese moves were met with some heroic last-ditch defending, but their pressure was relentless and it was too much for the young Tuskers, as China powered through two more tries to add some gloss to the score line. Though for the Sri Lankan crowd they had seen enough to offer hope for the future.
The same could not be said of the Sri Lanka Women’s side, for whom the tournament proved an underwhelming season closer, as they ended with just the solitary 17-7 win against Malaysia in the 7th/8th place final. Up until that point the tournament had been one to forget, with successive losses to Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore.
The women’s side however will take heart from the improvements made by teams like Thailand, and will no doubt have been buoyed by the fervent home support to strive for further improvement going forward.
“First and foremost I want to thank the amazing support we received from our fans, and while the results were not what any of us would have ideally wanted, we hope we made you proud,” said Dayan after the tournament. “Our goal now is to keep this young group fit and together, and work towards coming back stronger next season.”
Sri Lanka Women’s Captain Sanjeewani De Silva, meanwhile expressed her hope that more girls would take up the sport in the country, so as to grow Sri Lanka’s talent pool in the years ahead.
“We have a lot of talent here in Sri Lanka, what we need is the right structure to nurture it,” she said speaking after the tournament. “We as a team are disappointed in our performances over the past two days, especially in front of such amazing support from our fans, but we promise that we will come back stronger.”