Text and Image: World Rugby
Japan will have an early opportunity to test themselves against both Rio 2016 finalists when the Tokyo 2020 men’s sevens tournament gets under way on Monday.
The hosts kick-off the men’s Olympic tournament at 09:00 local time (GMT+9) when they take on Pool B rivals and defending champions Fiji at Tokyo Stadium.
It is hoped the men’s and women’s Olympic tournaments can have a similarly positive impact on participation in Japan as was achieved by hosting Rugby World Cup 2019.
A local success story would certainly help, as it did two years ago, and Japan’s men will aim to emulate their performance at Rio 2016, when they beat New Zealand and France en route to finishing fourth.
Japan have finished no higher than 15th on the World Rugby Sevens Series since then, but with Chihito Matsui captaining a talented side containing Lote Tuqiri and Yoshikazu Fujita, they will believe a medal is not out of the question.
Starting the tournament with positive results against Fiji and Great Britain, who contested the men’s gold medal match five years ago, would set the hosts up nicely at the end of day one.
And, Fiji coach Gareth Baber admitted this week he will take nothing for granted ahead of the opening match.
“Playing [Japan] first game of the Olympics, for anybody, at nine o’clock in the morning in Japan is a test in itself,” he said.
“Obviously, then it’s a lot about how you react to the environment and how you get your game on track quickly.”
RISING TO THE CHALLENGE
Baber spoke to World Rugby recently about the pressure of repeating Fiji’s gold medal run at Rio 2016. Last month he picked a 12-man squad that included only one player who experienced that campaign, captain Jerry Tuwai.
Bristol Bears star Semi Radradra has since joined up with the squad in Japan and is sure to dominate headlines, but Baber will be equally keen to see how a couple of less well-known players fare in Tokyo.
Neither Iosefo Masi nor Jiuta Wainiqolo have World Series experience but they have been selected in a squad brimming with talent having impressed at the recent Oceania Sevens tournament in Townsville.
“If they're doing it at Oceania level, when you've got two of the other top five or six teams in the world, then you know they've got something about them,” Baber told World Rugby.
“You've got to be able to repeat the qualities that we showed in the games that we played [in Townsville] and be able to manage yourself mentally and physically through that as well.
“And, it's new to me, I've never been involved in an Olympic Games. I've been in other tournaments, but this is a unique experience for a relatively inexperienced Fijian team to go and take on that challenge.
“I know that if a team is going to beat us, they're going to have to be at the best of their game, and that's what we repeat to each other quite often.”
Fiji’s second assignment on day one is a match against Canada, who open their Pool B campaign against Great Britain at Tokyo Stadium.
Both the British and the Canadians will hope to leave Japan with a medal, and therefore making a strong start on day one will be crucial.
NEW ZEALAND TARGET HISTORY
In Pool A, New Zealand begin their bid to add an Olympic gold medal to the Rugby World Cup Sevens and World Series titles they currently hold against the Republic of Korea.
The Asian qualifiers are the least experienced team in the tournament having played only three World Series events in the past five years, and face a monumental task against the All Blacks Sevens.
New Zealand coach Clark Laidlaw has selected a squad packed with match-winners, with co-captain Tim Mikkelson, Kurt Baker and Regan Ware among the players to keep an eye on.
“We can’t really look too far past the first game with Korea, and we’re looking to start our tournament really well,” Mikkelson told SENZ Drive.
“The last time we played a good Japanese team and we lost … so this time we’re really looking to start our tournament well and then build our confidence going forward to the rest of the tournament.”
Two teams from each pool, plus the two best third-placed teams, will advance to the quarter-finals and both Argentina and Australia will want to make a good start in Tokyo when they meet on Monday.
Australia’s squad has been bolstered by the inclusion of Wallabies star Samu Kerevi, while coach Tim Walsh is attempting to complete a unique double having led the country’s women to the first Olympic sevens title in Rio.
Their opponents in the opening match, Argentina have been in impressive form in 2021 and will be targeting a place on the podium this week.
‘OLYMPICS IS THE PINNACLE’
South Africa’s preparation for the Games has been disrupted after coach Neil Powell tested positive for COVID-19 but his assistant Renfred Dazel is confident the team can “make it work” in Tokyo.
“We have a clear focus, and the guys are really working hard and at good intensity and that is what we needed,” Dazel said.
“Our focus is pretty much on what we need to achieve come Monday at 11:00 and we are still in good shape.”
The 2018 Series champions set off for Japan with hopes of going at least one step further than in Rio, when the Blitzboks won a bronze medal.
South Africa’s opening opponents in Tokyo are Ireland, who were the last team to qualify for the Olympics when they beat France at the World Rugby Sevens Repechage in Monaco last month.
Following that match, the USA make their entrance against Kenya, and the Americans — who play Ireland later on day one — are another team with designs on the gold medal.
Kenya, though, have their own hopes and expectations heading into their second Games.
“We all know the Olympics is the pinnacle of all games. The boys are excited and we can't wait to get to run out on Monday," veteran Willy Ambaka said.
"We have an experienced squad, but we have to be careful not to let emotions get into us.
"We just need to stay calm and with a peace of mind and just get the results out of Tokyo.”