Hong Kong Sevens

Japan know that it's now or never

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 March, 2012, 12:00am

Asian champions Japan will bring out their heavy-hitters, including two players who figured in last year's World Cup, in their bid to join the world series and ensure their country's sevens development gathers momentum.

Samoan hitman Alisi Tupuailai and former captain Takehisa Usuzuki, who both played in John Kirwan's team in the 15-a-side showpiece in New Zealand, have been drafted in by national sevens coach Wataru Murata.

'This year's Hong Kong Sevens is extremely important because three new core-team spots are at stake,' Murata said. 'Joining the expanded core teams is vital to the development of our team towards the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

'If we fail, it will have a big negative impact on the development of Japan Sevens. This year we will be taking part in five legs of the series.

'If we fail to make it into the new 15-core team system, it will probably mean we will only be able to take part in Hong Kong and our own event and this will further widen the gap between us and the top teams.'

Japan will also host a new leg in the series in Tokyo next weekend, but Murata wants a permanent place at the top table. Japan are ranked 15th in the standings.

'We have come a long way and we have already shown we are capable of beating teams like Scotland, Canada and the United States. Joining the core teams will surely raise the level of Japanese sevens,' said Murata, a former national scrumhalf.

The return of Tupuailai, a vital cog in the Japan squad at the 2009 World Cup Sevens in Dubai, will boost the team's chances significantly and raise Asia's hopes of having a permanent presence in the world series next season.

'I'm excited and happy Wata called me up to try to win a top three berth in the qualifiers,' said the Samoan-born giant. 'I love both [15s and sevens] but I really love sevens because of its atmosphere.

'I think we've got a good chance of finishing in the top three. I love Hong Kong and I always play well here. The atmosphere and crowd make me play better.'

While Tupuailai, who has won 20 caps for the Brave Blossoms (at 15s level), is one of the most experienced players in the squad, Murata can also rely on flyer Usuzuki, who led Japan to a gold medal victory over Hong Kong at the Asian Games in Guangzhou in 2010.

Takayuki Yamauchi will lead the 12-man squad and is hoping Japan's traditional strong points - speed and fitness - will allow them to get over the line. Japan are in pool F with Portugal, Russia and Guyana.

'I would call it the 'pool of death'. Both Portugal and Russia are strong sides. I remember last year where Portugal played close games against New Zealand twice. These two teams advanced to the Cup competition while we played in the Bowl and it will be tough playing against teams in this category,' Murata said.

Murata felt sevens was the pathway to success at the higher level and that it could lay the foundation for success in 15s, especially when Japan hosts the World Cup in 2019. This underlines the importance Japan has placed on winning a core-team spot this weekend.

'In Japan, sevens is the stepping stone for young players to the world stage. Many 15s players have emerged from sevens. Therefore the development of sevens will no doubt be very beneficial to the development of rugby as a whole,' Murata said.