China stay in race for HK showpiece
The women played barefoot before the rain came down and turned the Nittawela ground into a paddy field. But favourites Japan and South Korea made light of the conditions underfoot as they tap-danced their way into the quarter-final stage at the Singer-SriLankan Sevens yesterday.
China, too, moved sweetly into the last eight with the day's highest score - a 77-0 drubbing of India. It was enough to see them finish second in their preliminary round group, behind Japan, and perhaps earn a relatively easier tie against Thailand today.
'We have achieved our minimum target which was to enter the Cup quarter-finals. Now we are looking ahead to winning our next game and stay in contention for one of the three berths to the Rugby World Cup Sevens,' said China's new sevens coach, Darryl Suasua.
The International Rugby Board is using this tournament as the Asian qualifiers for the 2005 RWC Sevens to be played in Hong Kong next March. Three teams will earn entry. Out of the 12 who started the race yesterday, India, Singapore, Kazakhstan and Asian debutants Guam were weeded out.
The rains had stayed away for the past six months from this hill capital. But soon after proceedings got under way with an exhibition match between two barefoot women's teams, the heavens opened and the drought officially ended.
The ground quickly turned into a quagmire but the rugby on the pitch was hardly pedestrian, especially when the fleet-and-sure-footed Japanese and Koreans were on the pitch.
Japan beat Indian 45-5 and China 31-5 to top their pool. Korea had a much harder first outing, beating the Arabian Gulf 28-14 before turning on the style in the final match of the day with a 40-7 win over Singapore.
Korea will meet Malaysia in the quarter-finals, while Japan take on hosts Sri Lanka. But by a quirk of the draw - done by the IRB - both Korean and Japan are in the same half of the draw and are now fancied to meet in the semi-finals. Luckily for them, even the loser of the semi-final will still be in the running for a ticket to Hong Kong as the third berth will be decided by the third place playoff.
China's chances look good. If they beat Thailand first-up, they are likely to meet Taiwan in the semis - a must-win game for if they lose, they will then play either Japan or Korea in the third place playoff and this will be tough going on yesterday's result against Japan.
DeA Tigers fullback Johnny Zhang Zhiqiang was in the forefront of the action. He scored China's solitary try against Japan, and was constantly a threat. But after running Japan close, trailing 7-5 at half-time, China eased up when Japan pulled ahead. Their minds were already on today's encounter against Thailand.
'We have been training as a unit for only the past three weeks. It is a good spirited side and I have enjoyed my time with them. I hope we can go all the way,' said Suasua, formerly coach of the New Zealand women's sevens side.
Thailand pulled the plug on hosts Sri Lanka with a 26-10 victory in a crucial match where the winner avoided meeting Japan in the quarter-finals. Having rushed to a 19-0 lead at the break, the Thais withstood a comeback by Sri Lanka to finish top of pool C.
In the other pool, Taiwan looked assured as they defeated Guam 31-14 and Malaysia 45-7. But Guam were just enjoying their first appearance in Asia.
'It is a great feeling. We were formerly part of Oceania, but cost and the time factor made it sensible for us to join the Asian rugby union. When we went to Suva [Fiji] we had to travel 32 hours while Japan or Hong Kong is just three or four hours away. We made a bid to join Asia and we are glad we were accepted,' said Peter Baggetta, Guam's coach and a former student at the Hong Kong International School.
But Baggetta and his team won't be coming to Hong Kong soon. They were knocked out of the running for a ticket to the RWC Sevens.
CUP QUARTER-FINAL LINEUPS
South Korea v Malaysia; Japan v Sri Lanka; Thailand v China; Taiwan v Arabian Gulf.