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Hong Kong Sevens

‘We can’t get better’: Japan qualify for World Series but coach Damian Karauna wants greater commitment to sevens

New Zealander says the team are unable to improve unless there is a centralised programme for seven-a-side rugby

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 April, 2018, 6:41pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 April, 2018, 10:40pm

Japan are playing out a familiar scenario with yet another victory in the World Sevens Series Qualifier, with coach Damian Karauna hoping they can change what has been a predictable script and actually stay in the elite division.

The Japanese broke German hearts with a try deep into time added on as the Asian giants won 19-14 in a thrilling final. Germany led 14-12 with the hooter gone but Japan kept possession, kept gaining yards and finally broke through with Siosifa Lisala scoring after an intricate attacking move.

New Zealander Karauna, though, said the set-up in Japan where 15s takes priority – especially in the lead-up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup – means the sevens programme is taking a back seat for now.

“Unless we have more time with them then we are going to stay at this level and we can’t get better,” said Karauna, a former assistant coach with the New Zealand sevens team. “We’ll go back and we’ll have a look at things. The problem we have is consistency of players. We have such a large turnaround of players, we’ve got to plan ahead.

“It’s not only about the World Series, we also have a two-year plan leading us to Tokyo [Olympics] so we have to understand what we’re trying to achieve. Is it World Series or is it Tokyo? So we’ll go back and assess the tournament.”

Japan have been like a yo-yo over the years, qualifying for the World Series only to be relegated in their first season back. But for now, they will savour their victory in Hong Kong after a stuttering start.

After struggling to a 26-10 victory over Georgia in their opening pool E match, Japan then lost 19-10 to Chile before recovering to beat Uganda 24-10 and advance to the quarter-finals.

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They looked a different side in the knockout stages, beating a solid Uruguay outfit 26-19 before causing the biggest shock of the tournament with their 12-7 victory over favoured Ireland in the semis.

In the final, both teams dug deep. Japan took the lead in the second minute through Lisala before Germany, who were a man down after a sin-binning, took a 7-5 lead with a converted try from John Dawe. The Germans extended their lead to 14-5 just before half-time through a Bastian Himmer try and looked good to hold on for victory.

But Japan refused to give up, Masahiro Nakano reducing the deficit to 14-12 before Lisala ended a sustained period of pressure to score the winner.

“That game came down to the last 27 seconds,” said Karauna. “We tried a few offloads in the first half and it didn’t work and that’s crucial because you have to keep the ball.

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“And they gave us the opportunity in the last 27 seconds. We wanted to play our game and it worked in the end. The game is 14 minutes and it’s not over until it’s over.”

Karauna must now prepare his side for the Singapore Sevens at the end of the month, but he’s not sure who will be available.

“These guys are specialist 15s players,” he said. “We have them for two weeks. That’s how little time we have with them.

“Some of them will go back to 15s training on Tuesday or Wednesday and then we will get them back for Singapore ... if we get them back. We don’t even know who is available for Singapore yet.

“Ideally, like all World Series teams I’d like a centralised programme,” he said. “It’s the only way forward. It’s in the plans but it’s just a matter of how we can get it done.

“There are so many competitions in Japan at different levels so we’ll work with what we have at the moment.

“But the big rock is 2020 Tokyo so we have to sit down and assess what we need to do.”

Germany had beaten Chile 19-12 in the semi-finals, having won all their pool matches.