Hong Kong's hopes at heading off to Japan next summer for the women's rugby sevens portion of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo will most likely come down to results against two teams.
The first will be a Chinese squad that will have home field advantage starting on Saturday in Guangzhou at the University Town Sports Centre Stadium where the two-day Asia Women's Rugby Sevens Tournament kicks off.
Next summer, 10 squads will take part in the rugby sevens event at the Olympics, the second time the sport will feature in the Games. The top four teams from the World Rugby Series have already qualified (New Zealand, the US, Canada and Australia) along with regional qualifiers Brazil, Great Britain, Kenya and hosts Japan. There is also an Oceania qualifying tournament ongoing to determine the other slot.
Hong Kong are slotted into a group with China along with Sri Lanka and South Korea. The Chinese squad finished second behind Japan at the three-legged Asia Rugby Sevens Series, which recently wrapped in Sri Lanka. China lost the final of the first leg, which started August 31 in South Korea, to Japan (who have already qualified for the Olympics as hosts) by a score of 19-5.
China then lost to Japan again in the second leg in Huizhou 22-17, and then blanked Kazakhstan 31-0 in the final leg in Sri Lanka to finish third. Hong Kong lost to China in South Korea 19-7 in the cup semi-final, then got blitzed by the squad 45-0 in Huizhou during the group stage, and the two squads did not meet in Sri Lanka.
The other team will be Kazakhstan, who finished third overall in the Asia Rugby Sevens Series. Hong Kong beat Kazakhstan 17-10 in the first leg of the series in South Korea, and then Kazakhstan beat Hong Kong 19-17 in Huizhou, and then lost to China in Sri Lanka to end their campaign.
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How is Hong Kong's recent form?
Hong Kong's Asia Rugby Sevens Series was one of ups and downs. The team fizzled out in Sri Lanka, salvaging fifth place over Singapore 22-5 in a final leg that saw them lose to Thailand and Japan in the group stage, but winning against Sri Lanka. Hong Kong then went on to beat Malaysia in the plate semi-final.
Hong Kong will kick off their Olympic qualifying campaign tomorrow at 2.44pm against Sri Lanka. The tiny island nation in South Asia finished sixth in the Asia Rugby Sevens Series campaign, finishing off the third and final leg with a win over Malaysia to finish seventh.
Next up for Hong Kong will be China at 6pm, and then they will round out their group stage Sunday morning at 9.44am against South Korea, who did not compete in the Asia Rugby Sevens Series.
Sevens rugby is known for upsets given the tournament style format which features short games (seven minute halves), and in such a high-pressure situation with the Olympics on the line, and Murphy's Law could come into play quite quickly. Hong Kong are well equipped with key veterans such as captain Melody Li Nim-yan and Natasha Shangwa Olsen-Thorne who have played on stages like this before including trying to qualify for the 2015 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but their chances will most likely rest on the youngsters that head coach Iain Monaghan have picked to round out his squad if they are to succeed.
The wild card this weekend is there is no tomorrow, nothing to look forward to outside of World Series qualifying, meaning teams have added incentive to go for broke in Guangzhou and run their players right to the final whistle.
Hong Kong's tournament will probably rest on the match with China in their second group stage match. An upset over the Chinese squad means they will likely be able to avoid Kazakhstan coming out of the group stage, if of course, Hong Kong can win their other two group matches against teams they should beat.
Earlier this year Hong Kong squeaked into the knockout stage of the Hong Kong Sevens, which serves as a qualifying tournament for World Rugby's Women's Sevens Series as the top-finishing third place team in the group portion of the event.
However they were unable to capitalise on this as they got beat by Japan 27-7 in the first knockout round. Li said before the tournament that her squad could win it all, a confident declaration that did not come to fruition. Before this weekend's tournament she was a bit more guarded and picky with her words, instead stating her squad will focus on their own game and see what happens.
As soon as the first kick goes off tomorrow, you can most likely expect one of two scenarios. One would be where everything goes to script, and without heavyweights Japan in the mix, China and Kazakhstan face off in the final to see who gets to book their plane tickets to Tokyo. The other narrative is one where upsets abound right from the start and we see one or two underdogs, most likely Hong Kong or Thailand, squeak their way into the final in a do-or-die game that will surely be one for the ages.
In Guangzhou, Hong Kong's ladies are hoping for the latter, a tournament where players have stars in their eyes thinking about the prize at the end of this journey, and upsets galore throwing wrenches into game plans all around as the allure of Japan and calling oneself an Olympian sets the stadium ablaze.
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