Hurt goes on: Brave Hong Kong bow to Japan in Asian sevens qualifier for Olympics
Gareth Baber’s men give the regional champions a big scare before the visitors secure place at Rio - now local hopes lie with a tough repêchage to come
The clock said 10 minutes to go but it must have been an eternity for Hong Kong as nemisis Japan rallied in the second half to secure automatic qualification for the Olympics with a 24-10 victory in the final of the Asia Rugby Sevens Qualifier on Sunday.
At half-time, Hong Kong were up 10-0 in the men's clash at Hong Kong Stadium, through tries to Alex McQueen and captain Max Woodward. After cruising through the group stages without a point scored against them, the Japanese suddenly were all fumbles and struggling to breach a swarming defence.
But a four-try second half - with Japan's big guns of Lemeki Lomano, Teruya Goto, Katsuyuki Sakai and Kazuhiro Goya all finding the line - extinguished the Olympic dreams for Hong Kong - for the moment at least.
There's a repêchage set for next June that will feature 16 teams from regional qualifiers and offering one last place in Rio. Hong Kong will be joined there by South Korea and Sri Lanka after the Koreans won the third-place play-off 26-19.
Hong Kong coach Gareth Baber was matter-of-fact after another crucial loss to the Japanese, and the road ahead.
"That'll be tough," he said of the repêchage. "We'll hurt for a few days and then we'll realise we have to learn from it.
"The game doesn’t suddenly stop. You’ve got to take the learning out of it and progress.
"They have been in this situation previously and normally at the hands of Japan so we've got to look at the means by which we can get to them."
Sentiments shared by captain Woodward, who was a tower of strength all tournament.
"To go from 10-0 up to lose the game is tough but that's sevens. But you've got to take it on the chin and go on to the next one. I'm so proud of the lads," he said.
Hong Kong gathered momentum as the weekend progressed and made their way to the final with a 19-10 victory over South Korea. By the time they hit the grass for the final the stadium was at fever pitch - around 10,000 had gathered in support but you'd have thought there were a lot more by the noise.
"Obviously when you're in your home town the emotion is around and you've got to temper that a little bit," said Baber.
"I was really proud of what they did in the first half. They were brave, they took risks but they look after each other as well."
But Japan, the Asian champions, always seem to have a bit in reserve as they have showed against Hong Kong time and again with important victories at the Sevens and in regional competitons.
Immense pressure was applied, cracks began to appear and that’s so often all the Japanese need.
“They obviously regrouped at half-time,” said Baber. “They upped the intensity. They challenged. They came off their line quickly and we were just a bit lacking in a couple of areas, there were turnovers and they scored.”
“And 20 minutes playing sevens it’s as quick as that. They showed their class.”
To the victors then go the spoils. Japanese star Lote Tuqiri said the party that had begun with the national 15s side's strong showing at the Rugby World Cup was only just beginning.
"This will be a big boost for Japanese rugby," he said. "Sevens in the Olympics is incredible. It's the best feeling ever for all us. A dream come true for every athlete in the world.”
“It was a tough game and Hong Kong are always difficult. They go hard and we said we just have to stick with them and never give up. Qualifying is just the first step though. We want more. A medal is the next target.”