Chance for HK youngsters to determine 'fate of game'
The long-term future of rugby in Hong Kong will be in the hands of a dozen youngsters this weekend at the Under-20 Asian Sevens Championship in Malaysia.
Hong Kong take part in the 10-team tournament in Johor Bahru knowing a top-three finish will guarantee rugby becoming the first team sport to gain elite status at the Hong Kong Sports Institute.
'These guys are carrying a big responsibility. Talk about pressure, this is huge,' said Hong Kong Rugby Football Union chairman Trevor Gregory. 'But I'm very confident they can do it. It is incredibly exciting being on the verge of becoming an elite sport.'
Four members of the squad who lost to Malaysia in last year's final remain - forwards Jack Capon and Adam Butterfield, and backs Josh Peters and Russell Webb.
'They all know what is at stake and the importance of finishing in the top three. But what matters most is winning the tournament and making up for last year's result,' Hong Kong coach Alex Gibbs said.
'The fate of rugby in Hong Kong is in their hands, but rather than looking at it as pressure, the guys are looking at it as a really good opportunity to make history this weekend.'
Rugby has received funding for the past couple of years from the Sports Institute under the Individual Athletes Support Scheme due to the success at the 2009 East Asian Games and the 2010 Asian Games, when Hong Kong's sevens squad won silver medals. But if they clinch elite team status, it will be for a four-year period and they will be able to enjoy the full benefits of the elite academy at Fo Tan, which will include funding for athletes as well as use of the top support system.
Having already achieved two senior results and one junior result, the HKRFU needs just one more junior result to reach elite sports status. The senior results came from last season's HSBC Asian Sevens Series with two golds, winning the Bangkok and Goa tournaments, and a silver in Shanghai and bronze in Borneo. The junior result was the runners-up spot at this same under-20 event last year.
'We have ticked all the boxes bar one,' said Dai Rees, national coach and head of performance. 'Hopefully, we will be able to do that this weekend, but it's not going to be easy.'
Unlike last year, when it was a six-team event, more countries have come forward, with sevens now taking on added significance due to its elevation to Olympic sport.
Japan and China, who were both missing last year, will be represented as both countries look at developing the abbreviated game.
'More countries in Asia are putting resources into sevens. It will be a little bit of the unknown we will step into, but we have prepared well and I'm confident we can do it,' Rees said.
Hong Kong are pooled with Uzbekistan, Taiwan, Thailand and Brunei. The other half of the draw will see Malaysia take on Japan, China, Singapore and the Philippines. The top two after the round-robin preliminaries tomorrow will move into the crossover semi-finals.
Apart from last year's four survivors, the rest of the squad comprises Chris Maize, Raef Morrison, Richard Lewis, Joshua Owen, Gary Wong, Mike Harman, Theo Rolston and Martin Field.