Holding on to hope: Hong Kong women still in the frame to make Rio Olympics sevens
Battling win against China in third-place play-off of Asian qualifiers’ first leg keeps local hopes alive
The Hong Kong women's side still have a mountain to climb if they are to make it to the Olympics - but at least the first step has been taken thanks to a thrilling 12-7 victory over China in Sunday's Asia Rugby Sevens Qualifier third-place play-off at Hong kong Stadium.
The final was out of reach after Kazakhstan's height and weight advantage proved too much in the second half of their morning group clash with the visitors winning 20-12 to ensure they would meet Japan to decide the tournament.
Favourites Japan then got it right when it mattered, brushing the Kazakhs aside 22-0. They had looked lacklustre in losing to China 12-5 in their last group game but the Asian champions rose to the occasion.
"In sevens rugby you have to forget your mistakes and we did that," said Japan coach Keiko Asami. "We are so happy because now we can go home and play in front of our country with our confidence high."
An extended qualifying process for the Rio Games means that there's another women's tournament to follow in Tokyo at the end of the month before Asia's automatic representative is finalised.
And then there's what promises to a brutal repêchage event for the teams who finish second to fourth at the various regionals over a weekend in July, destination to be advised, that has one final spot up for grabs."I think I've had my heart in my mouth for most of the weekend," said Hong Kong coach Anna Richards.
"[Third] gives us a mathematical chance, a tough one. We really need to win and have things go our way.
"It was good on two levels to finish like that [against China]. One, it's kept us in the game and two we showed the crowd and ourselves that we actually play well and win as we've been up and down this weekend."
Fittingly it was Aggie Poon Pak-yan who sealed the win over China, running almost the length of the Hong Kong Stadium pitch - while weaving her way through the sandpits - and gently placing the ball beneath the uprights. The speedster had been the stand-out for Hong Kong all weekend.
Poon crossed in the first minute, too, but it was that last effort that will linger long in her memory, along with the echoes of the crowd that must have been ringing in her ears."I didn't think anything except go for it and use 100 per cent of myself," said the 25-year-old Poon.
"The first game I felt amazing to run out with the team. We were not familiar with having the whole crowd support us. We felt that in this last game. All the crowd and all the energy really lifted us.
"Maybe we will be like Japan," she said. "In the first tournament of the Asian series [in Qingdao] they came third and now they are champions, so maybe we can do that, too."
Richards was talking "team effort" by the end but saved some praise for Poon."She's an outstanding player," she said. "Sometimes she lacks a little bit of self-belief. Sometimes I think she doesn't believe she's as good a player as she is. She's a quality player and we've just got to get her to go for it."
Hong Kong's resolute defence had fans on their feet all weekend, capped memorably by a covering tackle by Chong Ka-yan - all 50kg of her - when China looked certain to score.
Richards' hope by the tournament's end was that her charges had sent a message to fans everywhere.
"We've shown that we're a legitimate side to support and it's not just the guys out there," she said. "They played really well this weekend but it would be good to see more women's games at the Hong Kong Sevens - I'll push for that for sure."