Japan's Lepuha Latuila has been called into the Sevens squad for the upcoming Asian Games in Korea.
With an eye already on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Japan will field their strongest squad as they aim to retain the rugby sevens gold medal in the men’s competition at the 17th Asian Games, which starts at the Namdong Asiad Rugby Field in Incheon on Tuesday.
Japan has brought back powerhouse forward and national 15s captain Michael Leitch, one of six influential players who have been released by their Top League sides for the Asian Games. Their presence is bound to transform a team that has yet to succeed in this season’s ARFU Asian Sevens Series.
“With the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo it is most important that we defend our Asian Games gold medal,” said Japan manager Yasu Ijiima.
“This has been our main target this year and we are fortunate to have a number of Top League players with us this week in Korea.”
Leitch was a regular in sevens before being picked out by national 15s head coach Eddie Jones to man the back-row and lead the Brave Blossoms. The hard-working flanker will boost a squad that has surprisingly met with little success as they defend their crown in the Asian Sevens Series this season.
Japan was stunned by South Korea in the semi-finals in the first leg in Hong Kong. They were then beaten by an impressive Hong Kong outfit in the final in the second leg in Kuala Lumpur.
“We had always targeted Michael Leitch for the Asian Games but some of the other changes to the squad are due to injury. It is great to have the Top League players with us and because there is a two-week window in the league we have been able to get them released from their clubs,” Ijiima said.
Apart from Leitch, other Top League stalwarts returning to sevens include Lepuha Latuila who turns out for the Kintetsu Liners, Yoshiya Hosoda (NEC Green Rockets), Masakatsu Hikosaka (Toyota Verblitz), Rakuhei Yamashita (Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers) and Shota Hagisawa (Kubota Spears).
Hosoda is a veteran of Japan’s teams on the HSBC Sevens World Series, playing in both London and Glasgow last season, while Leitch and Latuila both have several HSBC Sevens tournaments under their belts but have not been seen in Asian sevens competition for several years. The Top League battalion will join sevens regulars like Lomano Lemeki and skipper Katsuyuki Sakai, making Japan a dangerous outfit.
“Hong Kong will be our main target and we are aware we haven’t beaten them as yet this season,” Ijiima said.
But while Japan are at full-strength, most of the players are only coming back to sevens after a long lay-off and the team has had only one week to prepare for the challenge of the Asian Games.
“We will take it one game at a time because of the format where it will be crucial to score as many points in each game as all the teams will be re-seeded for the knockout competition,” Ijiima added.
The 12 teams in the men’s competition are split into three pools with Japan heading Pool A comprising Malaysia, Thailand and Saudi Arabia. Hong Kong will top Pool B including China, the Philippines and Pakistan. Pool C will be led by hosts South Korea and include Sri Lanka, Chinese-Taipei and Lebanon. At the end of the preliminary round, the top eight teams will be re-seeded from one to eight for the quarterfinals.
Hong Kong buoyed by winning both opening legs in the Asian series will depend on their core group of players barring two who have been brought back – former captain Mark Wright and livewire Keith Robertson.
Speaking on the new additions to the Japan team, Dai Rees, head of technical development and performance for Japan’s sevens rivals Hong Kong said:
“It is an interesting approach for Japan and shows that there is a lot on the line this week for all of the teams. Japan have obviously added pace and power for Incheon. They will be stronger but will they be more organized? Presumably it will take them a few games to gel while we pride ourselves on being fully professional and on our organization.
“It’s no added pressure for us,” Rees added. “We are focused fully on what we need to do as a team and I like to think we have our own surprises in Mark Wright and Keith Robertson. We have been able to train with Keith for several months now and have had Mark in camp for over a week so that process of integrating the new players is already well underway.”
Wright, who plays in Japan’s Top League for Toyota Shuttles, alongside Japan’s sevens captain Katsuyuki Sakai, will be playing at an international sevens tournament for the first time in four years, having captained the team which lost 28-21 to Japan in the gold medal match at the Guangzhou Games.
Robertson, who used to be the playmaker of the team, is now a pilot with Cathay Pacific Airways and has recently come back from a knee reconstruction surgery.
“Keith (Robertson) is a player with the X-factor and will provide us with valuable cover for captain Jamie Hood who has led the team superbly in the Asian Sevens Series,” said Rees.
Rees added: “Mark (Wright) has been a star for us in the past and he brings experience as well as grittiness over the ball which will come in handy.”
Apart from Wright, Robertson and Hood, there are only three other players from the team which had to settle for silver four years ago in Guangzhou – speedsters Salom Yiu Kam-shing and Rowan Varty, and forward Kwok Ka-chun.
The rest of the squad will be playing for the first time at the Asian Games with young forwards Mike Coverdale, Jack Capon and Max Woodward leading the way while the dangerous McQueen brothers, Alex and Tom, will provide firepower in the backs along with scrumhalf Cado Lee Ka-to.
South Korea who pulled off an upset win over Japan in the first leg of the series in Hong Kong will be a dangerous force in front of their home fans. Yoon Tae-il will lead the side of veterans from Korea’s fifteens team, most of whom have played this season on the regional circuit.
Sri Lanka, the fourth-ranked team in Asia can easily upset any team on their day, and will be ably led by Fazil Marija. The island nation was hit by the last-minute departure of Fijian coach Setefano Cakau who had left after the Malaysian Sevens earlier this month, leaving Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union president Asanga Seneviratne, a former captain, no option but to step into the breach.
In the women’s competition China will be favourites to win gold but can expect stiff competition from Japan, Kazakhstan and Hong Kong.The ten-team women’s competition will feature two pools of five teams each.
China will be out to claim gold after narrowly missing out at their home Games in Guangzhou in 2010. The form team in Asian women’s rugby, China beat Hong Kong in the final of the Hong Kong Asian Sevens and went on to qualify for a core team spot on the coming IRB Women’s Sevens World Series (IRB WSWS) after finishing third overall in the qualifiers held in Hong Kong in September.
China are the top seeds in Pool A alongside Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Uzbekistan. Defending Asian Games gold medallists Kazakhstan top Pool B with Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia and Laos.