Hong Kong surrender Asian crown after another Japanese comeback
For the third time in the series, bogey team overturn a half-time deficit to win a final - but outgoing coach insists the future is bright
The future might be bright, but yesterday everything was gloom for Jamie Hood and his men as Hong Kong failed to defend their Asian title. It was powerfully wrested back by Japan, who lifted the fourth and final leg of the HSBC Asian Sevens Series in Singapore, winning 24-19.
A sizzling second-half comeback from Japan robbed the silverware as well as the smiles off Hong Kong faces, but Dai Rees, leading the team as head coach for the last time, insisted things were brighter than they looked.
"This has been the story of the season for us - Japan coming back and winning. But the future is bright for us as we have unearthed a number of young guys this season who will be around a long time and who I'm sure will play crucial roles as we look ahead to next year's Asian Games as well as qualifying for the Olympics," Rees said.
Teenagers Raef Morrison and Max Woodward have been an integral part of the Hong Kong squad - Morrison scoring the match-winning try at the India Sevens in Mumbai, the only tournament Hong Kong won this season - but the strength in depth between the two Asian rivals is wide and one which Hong Kong will always struggle to fill.
With the stakes sky-high at the Singapore Sevens, Japan drafted in several players from their professional Top League and it was they who made the difference as Japan came back from trailing by 14 points at half-time to run in three unanswered tries and pull the rug from under Hong Kong's feet.
A brace from former skipper Rowan Varty, who had been in top try-scoring form on the final day, having grabbed a hat-trick in the quarter-final against the Philippines, and a try from the indefatigable Lee Jones had spurred Hong Kong to a 19-5 lead at the break. But with each half in the final being 10 minutes, Hong Kong knew it was far from over.
To be fair on Japan, Varty's second try was scored with the opposition down to six men after Jamie Henry, one of the Top League professionals drafted in for the finale, was sin-binned for a deliberate trip.
"Japan lifted their game magnificently in the second half. We knew they would come back at us strongly and that we would need to control and retain possession. But unfortunately we turned over ball on a couple of occasions and they scored from it," Rees said.
Aggressive counter-rucking from the Japanese forwards put Hong Kong under the cosh and with Jones and Nick Hewson being substituted to bring on fresh legs, Hong Kong lacked the experience to withstand the ferocious fightback.
Hong Kong had earlier disposed of the Philippines (43-0) and South Korea (35-5) to enter the Cup final. In the other half of the draw, Japan eased through with wins over Malaysia (41-5) and a resurgent China (26-0), who went on to grab third place in the tournament.
For the fourth time in the series, Japan and Hong Kong faced off. In the opening two legs in Malaysia and Thailand, Japan had come from behind to snatch victory with Hong Kong only managing to ward off a comeback in the third leg in Mumbai. Singapore was the same old story. Japan finished the series with 47 points, two clear of Hong Kong.
Japan and Hong Kong now qualify for the Hong Kong Sevens qualifying tournament to select a core team in the IRB Sevens Series next season.
"It has been a great duel between Japan and Hong Kong and I think this has lifted the level of rugby in Asia to another level. Unfortunately we couldn't quite get the result we wanted," said Rees, who will now move on to a more administrative role with the appointment of ex-Wales sevens coach Gareth Baber as head coach at the Hong Kong Sports Institute.
"I'm not going too far away, just moving upward and onward. I will still be close to the guys and with rugby sevens being in the SI only just four months, I think this is just the beginning and the future is bright," Rees added.