By MASASHI NAGADOI and AARON MIRIPOL, Special to The Rafu
On Aug. 27 and 28 at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Japan made their first visit to Los Angeles for the HSBC International Seven Series and showed moments of brilliance against three of the best teams in the world: Argentina Los Pumas, Australia, and South Africa Blitzboks.
All three southern hemisphere nations along with hometown favorite Fiji were vying for the HSBC 2022 Series Championship. This exciting two-day event covered 45 matches, with each game lasting 14 minutes (two 7-minute halves). That may sound like a short match, but when you only have seven players a side running, passing, and sometimes kicking the ball on a 100-meter by 70-meter pitch, Sevens quickly becomes the most exhausting sport in the world.
With a unique scoring system in place for the 2022 Series (due to the impact of COVID), each team’s end-of-season point total is calculated by taking their best seven results from the nine-series tournament. This meant South Africa (124 points), Australia (122), Argentina (118), and Fiji (104) all had opportunities to clinch the 2022 International Series in Los Angeles this past weekend.
Sixteen countries are placed into four pools of four teams, with the top two teams in each pool play advancing to the Cup, and the bottom two in each pool going to the Challenge round. Japan was in Pool A with Australia (ranked #2), Argentina (ranked #3) and Spain (13).
Japan brought a talented young side with a couple of veterans. According to head coach Koichi Umeda, “Since the early August we had training camps in Fuji and then in Chula Vista (in San Diego County), and our goal is to aim beyond the quarter-finalist.”
Japan showed their nerves in the first match on Saturday against Australia, getting shut out 0-61. Japan made far too many errors, including dropped passes, holding the ball too long, and poor tackling.
Japan made excellent adjustments for their second pool match on Saturday, blowing out Spain 33-0. Veteran Taichi Yoshizawa led Japan with two tries in the first half and 24-year-old Taiga Ishida led the team in scoring with a try and four conversions for a total of 13 points (try = 5 points, conversion kick after try = 2 points).
The team’s co-captain, Kazuma Nakagawa, noted their success against Spain was their ability to learn from their loss against Australia. “We talked over the issues in our first match, and made a fresh start, and re-motivated our goal to play well.”
It all came down to the third and final pool match on Saturday evening, where if Japan could upset Argentina, they would advance to the Cup playoff for the first time in history. However, Argentina got off to a fast start, leading 22 to 5 at half time. Japan made a valiant effort early in the second half with a quick score and conversion, cutting the deficit to 10 points.
But Los Pumas were just too strong as they scored the final two tries of the game, wining 34-12. One of Argentina’s young stars, Tobais Wade, commented, “Japan has shown great improvement over the year. We knew this was going to be a difficult match given the pressure to advance to the Cup round. We were fortunate to get the victory.”
On Sunday, the final day of the L.A. 7s, Japan came out sluggish in their first match against a winless England side, and ended up getting beaten 36-15. Even though Japan fought back with three tries and no conversions in the second half, again, there were too many costly handling errors.
In Japan’s second match, they took a commanding lead of 26 to 0, and held on to victory as Canada scored three tries in row. The final score was Japan 26 and Canada 19.
The third and final match of the day for Japan was against South Africa. The Boks had lost their chance to become the series champion, after losing two matches in pool play on Saturday. Any thoughts that South Africa had lost their mojo were quickly dashed as they quickly jumped on Japan, scoring three tries and leading 19-0 at half. Japan looked tired and they ultimately lost 26-0. Japan had two wins and four losses at the L.A. 7s, and came in 14th place. Overall Japan finished the 2022 season in 16th place.
Top 3 Japan scorers for the 2022 Sevens series
1. Taiga Ishida, 151 points
2. Moeki Fukushi, 55 points
3. Shotaro Tsuoka, 55 points
HSBC L.A. Sevens was a great success with over 15,000 people in attendance to watch Australia win the 2022 series (finishing third in the L.A.), and the New Zealand All Blacks beating Fiji in an exciting final 28 to 21.
At the award ceremony, the All Blacks showcased haka, an indigenous Maori tribe battle cry, as their victory performance. This iconic haka is spiritual and quite popular among rugby fans and is considered synonymous with New Zealand rugby.
The 2022~2023 HSBC series will kick off this November in Hong Kong and will return to Los Angeles for the sixth leg of the series in February 2023. Japan has much to look forward to in the new Sevens season with a talented young core of players coming back.
Photos by JUN NAGATA/Rafu Shimpo