20th Nov 2023

The men’s and women’s rugby sevens squads of Hong Kong, China remain in contention for next summer’s Olympic Games, but the path to Paris now routes through the international repechage in June after the men’s squad lost to Japan in the final seconds of the cup final 21-14. Earlier, the women shut out Thailand 12-0 to book their spot in the international play-off next summer with the final at-large place in Paris on the line.

It was a heart-breaking result for the men as Asia’s top rugby rivalry resumed with a vengeance at the Yokodo Sakura Stadium in Osaka tonight. It was the fifth time the two teams had met this season with Hong Kong having won twice, including the Asian Games gold medal final in September. Japan’s win in the final seconds tonight gave them the series lead 3-2, but it took two Television Match Official (TMO) decisions and a last-second try to do it. Hong Kong struck first after some fierce rush defence and counter-rucking produced a loose ball for Liam Doherty to swoop on, before outpacing Josua Kerevi to the corner. Russ Webb, whose tackle had helped put Japan on the backfoot earlier in the scoring play, added the conversion for a 7-0 lead.

Taiga Ishida produced a moment of brilliance for Japan on three minutes, when he somehow managed to keep his feet in a missile tackle from Cado Lee Ka To. Ishida retained the ball and his footing before racing home to level the scores 7-all.

A tactical decision to kick deep and turn the Japanese attack paid off early for Hong Kong, China, and it was a similar long-range punt that produced the visitors’ second score of the half in the 6th minute after Liam Herbert won a foot race to the line to score following a TMO review. Webb’s conversion was again successful and Hong Kong led 14-7 at the break.

The second half was more tightrope stuff for both teams with Hong Kong China’s defence producing turnovers and forcing penalties, which were used for touch-finders and lineouts to position the attack in Japan’s territory. But playing at home for the first time ever as a group, Japan’s Brave Blossoms’ defence held strong and produced key turnovers and more moments of individual skill. In the 13th minute, Japan conjured up a magic offload out of another Cado Lee rocket tackle, leading to a try for Kippei Taninaka beneath the posts which tied the game at 14-all after Webb’s conversion. Japan added the game winner at the death, occasioning another TMO review, but it was clear that Takamasa Maruo’s score in the corner was clean and that Japan had booked Asia’s sole reserved spot at Paris 2024 with a 21-14 win. 

Earlier in the day Hong Kong, China had outlasted China 19-12 behind a brace of tries from Max Denmark to reach the final. Denmark was Hong Kong’ China’s top try scorer on the weekend with five, with Russ Webb the tournament’s leading boot notching nine conversions along with two tries of his own. China beat UAE to finish with bronze and join compatriots Hong Kong at the repechage next summer.

Alessandro Nardoni summed up the emotions behind the loss saying, “It is really tough. Coming in we knew that only one team was going to get that ticket to the qualifier. We gave it our all and put in all the effort required to make sure it was going to be us, but it didn’t go our way.”

Nardoni commented on how tight this rivalry is, saying: “When we play Japan it is always a competitive game. We had five games against them this season, we won two and they won three, and it’s always down to one try. “We know we are capable of beating them, but today didn’t go our way. I know that the boys are proud of our performance, but right now it hurts. But it is just fuel for our next games, next year’s Asia Series and the repechage.”

Japan coach Simon Amor credited Hong Kong for its performance as well.
“It is a toss of the coin at the top end. We saw it at the Asian Games, it came down to the last play there, and it was the last play here, and unfortunately for Hong Kong the ball bounced our way this time. “If they stick together, there is so much wonderful talent in that team, that if they keep fighting they can fare well at the repechage. They have such a great chance of going well there,” added Amor.

The women’s seven built off of a more positive outing against Japan in this morning’s cup semifinal despite a 33-5 loss to claim bronze with a convincing 12-0 win over Thailand. Senior leaders Natasha Olson-Thorne and Chong Ka Yan willed the team to victory, producing some pivotal defence and contributing to both tries. Hong Kong controlled possession throughout, forcing Thailand into conceding a dozen penalties in the game, including five in the opening four minutes. Showing their outright pace, Thailand nearly scored against the run of play with a length of pitch breakaway after three minutes, only for Chong to put in a try-saving tackle on Hong Kong’s fivemetre line. Stephanie Chan was there in support and Hong Kong earned a penalty to take the pressure off of their line. Hong Kong cleared their lines twice from Thai penalties, with the lineout working efficiently to set up the attack at midfield. Olson-Thorne then took the ball on a 50-metre crash through the heart of the defence before neatly offloading to Chong for the easy finish and a 5-0 lead. Stephanie Chan’s conversion put Hong Kong ahead 7-0 at the break.

The second half saw more of the same with Thailand doubling its first half penalty count down the stretch.

Olson-Thorne left the field at half-time, but returned as substitute cover for an injury to Jasmine Fung close to Thailand’s try-line. Taking the ball off the back of the scrum, she lured in the rush defence before looping a ball out wide for Chan to finish as Hong Kong pushed the margin to 12-0.

“We’re very happy with our finish,” said Olson-Thorne after the game.

“We have had a few ups and downs this tournament, so to finish with a strong win was very pleasing. A lot of it comes down to hard work. Ka Yan chasing back to save that try and putting those tackles in, it was just that one little effort extra to put in, and that is a learned skill.”

The team is building on the momentum of a historic first ever medal (Bronze) at the Asian Games and the fact that Hong Kong, China added to their margin against Thailand in tonight’s bronze medal clash was not lost on Olson-Thorne.
“It is a good feeling; it gives me confidence in myself and the team that we are definitely going in the right direction.”

Typically, Olson-Thorne is focused on closing the gap further on teams like Japan and China. “I think it comes down to us having more belief in ourselves to have a go at those teams, that is so important. Sometimes we put ourselves under pressure but we have to have the belief to give it a go. Japan and China are tough teams, we know that, but we have got to meet them.”

The team now has another target to achieve and Olson-Thorne is excited at the challenge posed by the repechage and the opportunity to play against other elite sides from around the world.

“We are definitely building technically and tactically, but also mentally. We are getting stronger and stronger at each step, so now the next job is to get a bit more consistency in our game. “We have got to that level now we want to stay there,” she added.

Japan beat China 21-14 in the women’s final to advance to Paris 2024 while China and Hong Kong, China will contest the repechage.

Hong Kong, China Men’s Seven for Asia Rugby Olympic Qualifier:
Max WOODWARD (Captain); James CHRISTIE; Michael COVERDALE; Max DENMARK; Liam DOHERTY; Liam HERBERT; LEE Ka-to, Cado; Alexander McQUEEN; Alessandro NARDONI; Bryn PHILLIPS; Russell WEBB; YIU Kamshing, Salom.

Hong Kong, China Women’s Sevens Squad for Asia Rugby Olympic Qualifiers:
Natasha OLSON-THORNE (co-capt.); LI Nim-yan, Melody (co-capt.); AU YEUNG Sin Yi; Chloe CHAN; CHAN Chor Ki, Stephanie; CHONG Ka Yan; Shanna FORREST; FUNG Hoi Ching; HO Wai On, Jessica; NAM Ka Man; POON Hoi Yan, Vivian; TSE Wing Kiu