Tokyo aiming high with seven-a-side rugby

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The Independent Online

Japan is aiming to give nearby Hong Kong a run for its money in one of the most important seven-a-side rugby tournaments in the world with the introduction of the Tokyo Sevens in April.

The Japan Rugby Football Union will host the tournament at the Chichibunomiya Stadium, in the heart of the Japanese capital, on the weekend of April 16-17. Twelve teams from around the rugby-playing world will be represented, with organizers hoping to replicate the carnival-like atmosphere that exists at the Hong Kong Sevens and the Sevens World Series, held in the New Zealand capital of Wellington in early February.

Given that seven-a-side rugby is growing in popularity and will be included in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, Japan is hoping that the sevens event will demonstrate Japan's ability to host a major global tournament and boost its standing in the world game before it hosts the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Samoa, the current world champions in seven-a-side rugby, will be competing in Tokyo, along with Fiji, Tonga, Australia, South Africa, Canada and the United States.

New Zealand - traditionally a powerhouse in the sport - has also agreed to send a team of emerging sevens stars, while Asia will be represented by the host nation, China, South Korea and Thailand.

In an effort to further the sport among female players, a match between women from Australia and Japan has been included in the schedule.

"Now that rugby sevens is included in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, this tournament is designed to serve as a core driver to promote and develop rugby sevens in Japan," Yoshiro Mori, president of the Japan Rugby Football Union and former prime minister of Japan, said at a press conference setting out the aims of the tournament.

"The JRFU is determined to make the Tokyo Sevens a great success, where we can demonstrate the potential of rugby sevens in Japan to the rest of the world and to accelerate its development in Japan," he said.

The 12 teams in the tournament will be divided into four groups, with round-robin matches taking place on the first day. Knockout rounds will take place on the following day.

Hong Kong hosts the most famous sevens tournament in the world - helped by a large expatriate community that is knowledgeable about rugby and a 35-year-history - but Japan has set its sights on rivaling the former British colony in terms of prestige.