JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Japan's women's rugby sevens team gave itself a timely boost two years out from the Tokyo Olympics when it beat China 7-5 and won the Asian Games final for the first time on Saturday.
While Japan's men have dominated Asian sevens for years, the women have struggled to stay ahead of their regional rival.
Japan was beaten by China in the last Asian Games final four years ago, and recently lost its spot to China as a "core" team in the world sevens series.
But with Tokyo hosting the Olympics in 2020, Japan has been working hard to develop and promote women's rugby, and this gold medal could not have come at a better time.
"Japanese women's rugby has got a long history but we haven't been achieving our big targets in for the last 10 to 15 years," Japan coach Kensuke Iwabuchi said.
"Now that rugby is in the Olympics, we've really put a lot of effort into women's rugby, and the number of players has been growing for the last five years. With this gold medal, hopefully more Japanese girls are going to start playing."
Starved of possession, Japan defended magnificently for almost the entire match. Japan scored a converted try through Yume Hirano on a counterattack but was otherwise pinned inside its own territory and under constant pressure from a Chinese team that is also eyeing Olympic gold.
The Chinese rugby federation has hired coaches, strength conditioners, and video analysts from powerhouse New Zealand to set up new programs, and is committed to the long haul.
"In terms of planning, infrastructure and sheer playing numbers, there's no reason why China can't be up there, although we're under no illusions that it's going to take a while," China coach Chad Shepherd said.
"There are more girls playing than ever before and we're putting structures in place to identify and develop the top players. The giant carrot of course is the Olympics."
Japan's men found themselves on the losing side this time when they lost the final to Hong Kong 14-0. Salom Yiu and Alessandro Nardoni scored tries.
Considered the spiritual home of rugby sevens, Hong Kong rarely wins international tournaments and lost two Asian Games finals to Japan before finally getting one over its greatest rival.
"This is huge for Hong Kong rugby," coach Paul John said. "In the last two Asian Games we've finished with silver and gone very, very close so it's brilliant to finally get the gold."