Watch out for Japan, Mike Friday warns Hong Kong
Asian champions present biggest danger to home side for promotion to World Series, says ex-England sevens coach
Speed-infused Japan are genuine contenders for Sevens World Series promotion and a big stumbling block for Hong Kong's ambitions, says former England sevens guru Mike Friday.
Japan impressed Friday, a commentator at last weekend's Tokyo Sevens, who said they were "unlucky" not to make the Cup competition and had a proven match-winner in Lomano Lemeki, star of last year's HSBC Asian Sevens Series.
Asian champions Japan, European heavyweights Russia, and the top-ranked teams in Africa and Oceania - Zimbabwe and the Cook Islands, - were rated by Friday as the biggest dangers to Hong Kong's dreams of being a core team on the IRB Sevens World Series next season.
"Japan really impressed me on their home patch and they are genuine contenders in the World Series qualifiers," Friday said.
"They clearly have all the components to hurt and test the big teams. Some would say they were unlucky not to make the Cup competition [in Tokyo].
"They have exciting players with acceleration and feet, who moved the ball around the pitch with speed and purpose.
"They produced the other moment of the weekend with the Jamie Henry wonder try against South Africa, and in Lomano Lemeki they have an exciting match-winner. Five tries on debut playing with the big boys is good going," said Friday, who also coached Kenya, but now commentates.
Lemeki is no stranger to Hong Kong having burst on to the scene last year when he made a stunning debut in the opening leg of the Asian Sevens Series in Malaysia where he was named player of the tournament.
In the next leg in Thailand, he broke Hong Kong hearts again, scoring in sudden death as Japan regained the Asian Sevens crown from Hong Kong.
"It looks very promising for Japan this week as they get ready to go up against teams like Hong Kong, Russia, Zimbabwe and the Cook Islands, all of whom have aspirations and the confidence that they can claim that elusive 15th place as a core team on the Series in Olympic qualifying year.
"It all points to another classic in Hong Kong," Friday said.
Japan's bid to qualify was boosted when Eddie Jones, the 15s coach of the Brave Blossoms, released two of his best wingers - Yoshikazu Fujita, 20, and Kenki Fukuoka, 22 - for the Asian swing of the World Series.
Russia were one of the first of the 12 teams in the qualifying tournament to arrive in Hong Kong. For the first time, the sevens squad has gone overseas to prepare for the tournament, and yesterday captain Dmitry Perov declared they were ready.
"We spent two weeks in Cape Town training with the Kenya team, as well as another week in Zimbabwe where we also played in the Harare International Sevens," scrum-half Perov said.
"We beat Hong Kong there and we are confident, even though we know Hong Kong will have home-ground advantage."
Dai Rees, Hong Kong Rugby Football Union's head of technical development and performance, agreed with Friday.
Rees said the biggest dangers would be from Japan, Russia and Zimbabwe, adding that Italy, who they meet in the preliminary group, could be a dark horse.
"While we know about the others, we know nothing about Italy other than the fact that they must be good to have qualified from a tough European competition," Rees said.
"Italy does not play a lot of sevens, but must have good athletes because they play in the Six Nations."