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September 16, 2009

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Sevens heaven for Asian rugby

SOUTH Korea eventually triumphed, but it was Asian rugby that took a big step forward when the Chinese mainland's biggest rugby sevens tournament concluded on the weekend.

South Korea surprised favorite Japan, beating it twice in the pool stages and eventually thrashing it in the final of the Shanghai Sevens Tournament held over two days at the Shanghai Rugby Football Club's facilities in Pudong's Waigaoqiao.

But for the more than 2,000 spectators who attended over the two days, the tournament was remarkable for the quality of rugby from teams not expected to challenge the top teams. Sevens rugby has seven players on a team, instead of the standard 15.

The tournament featured nine teams from countries and regions across Asia, including South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Singapore and China.

South Korea was convincing winners in the final, beating Japan 42 to 19 but it was teams like Hong Kong that put in strong performances challenging the top sides.

China's Hong Kong finished third and Taipei forth.

Team China was unlucky not to go all the way, suffering from a tough pool that included both Japan and South Korea. They put in a brave performance, drawing 17 all with the eventual winners South Korea in the pool stages.

It was the first time that rugby had held an International Rugby Board-sanctioned event in Shanghai and it was the first leg of the Asian Rugby Sevens series.

IRB Regional General Manager Asia Jarrad Gallagher says the closeness of the contest showed the growing strength of rugby in Asia and would encourage other fledgling rugby nations to join.

"Usually the South Koreans and the Japanese would be the top dogs but there were five teams that could have won the tournament," he says. "It's pleasing that we can now say that we don't know who will win an Asian sevens tournament because the teams are very closely matched."

The South Koreans, while not having the physical size of their more fancied opponent Japan, were able to showcase their skills, thrilling the crowd with running, attacking rugby and solid defense throughout the tournament.

"The South Koreans are very gutsy and determined players and certainly in the sevens game they can hit and hit hard and evade well and still be able to recover," Gallagher says.

As well as the IRB, the event was sanctioned by the Asian Rugby Football Union, the Chinese Rugby Union and the Shanghai Sports Federation.

Mark Thomas, managing director of S2M Group, a co-organizer of the event, says there was strong support both within government and the rugby community.

"Planning for next year's event has already started and we will have a lot more lead time next year to market the event both in China and across Asia," he says.

Gallagher says the IRB was focused on creating a viable second tier of competition within Asia that would complement the already-established IRB World Seven Series.

The World Series attracts the established powerhouse nations of rugby like New Zealand, South Africa, England and Australia, and Gallagher says the aim is to make the Asian sevens competition a pathway to this higher tier of competition.

The organizers of the Shanghai Sevens Tournament also have their sights set on making Shanghai a part of the bigger IRB World Seven Series at a later date.

"It's very difficult to award hosting rights on the World Sevens Series if you have no history," Gallagher says. "It's very important that you can demonstrate that you have good local support and you can be sustainable. That's one of our ambitions and we are on the right path."


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