Rugby deserves elite status
A fortnight ago, scrumhalf Josh Peters led the Hong Kong under-20 rugby squad to a runners-up place at the Asian Sevens Championship in Johor Baharu, Malaysia. You could almost hear the champagne corks popping at the headquarters of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union. The result may have come at a junior event but the ramifications for the sport at all levels are enormous.
What it means is millions of extra dollars to develop the game here because rugby sevens is now eligible to become the 16th elite discipline at the Hong Kong Sports Institute. The benchmark by which a sport becomes suitable for S.I. status is made up of two results each from the senior and junior levels. Rugby sevens has ticked all the boxes.
Now rugby officials will have to play a waiting game because the selection process is lengthy and somewhat convoluted. The first step is that results achieved by any Olympic and Asian Games sport during the biennial review period - January 2011 to December 2012 - will be considered for elite sport status for the next four-year support cycle (2013-2017).
These results collected from the national sports associations will be submitted to the Elite Sports Committee for its consideration and recommendation to the Sports Commission for a final decision. The ESC will then inform the HKSI of the results of the evaluation and decision-making process. So the fate of rugby sevens now lies in the hands of 15 individuals comprising the ESC. What they recommend is usually accepted.
The ESC is led by chairman Frank Fu Hoo-kin, and includes vice-chairman and former champion cyclist Hung Chung-yam; former badminton ace Amy Chan Lim-chee; Sports Institute squash head coach Tony Choi Yuk-kwan; and Hong Kong Olympic Committee secretary general Pang Chung. There are also three representatives from the Home Affairs Bureau, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and the Education Bureau.
We can't foresee any problems for rugby sevens. The sport has endeared itself to the community by its medal-winning exploits at the 2010 Asian Games and the 2009 East Asian Games - both times Hong Kong won silver. Rugby also has the support of Sports Institute chief executive Trisha Leahy, who believes team sports are 'an essential and important component of any successful sports system, and we would be particularly delighted to be able to welcome rugby into the HKSI'.
Once confirmed as an elite sport, rugby will receive the full range of services and support provided by the HKSI to facilitate further success. This means millions of dollars of funding annually, the SI providing a head coach (or the funds to pay for one), the use of all the facilities from sports science to medicine, hostel services and so on.
Rugby has already had a taste of what it is like to be under government patronage. There are 15 players being supported by the Individual Athletes Support Scheme. Since 2010-11 the sport has been under the IASS programme worth a maximum HK$1.5 million per year, which is allocated on an annual basis based on athletes' results achieved in the previous two years. The East Asian Games and Asian Games results qualified rugby.
The sport has also been categorised under the Up-and-Coming Sport funding scheme since April 2011, and the two-year funding will carry on until next March. This provides another HK$1.5 million annually. But the big prize is to become an elite sport. This could see funding reach up to HK$5 million per year. The union will need all the financial support it can get to feed its ambition of one day having a core team in the HSBC Sevens World Series. If this happens, the HKRFU will have to look at offering players contracts to go full-time.
Since HSBC became title sponsor of the IRB Sevens, the series has expanded from eight to 10 stops, Argentina becoming the newest leg next season. There is no way Hong Kong, if they qualify, can take part in 10 tournaments across the globe with a group of part-time players. With their 15-a-side commitments, it will be difficult for players to get time off work to commit to serious rugby. Elite sports status would give the HKRFU an avenue to offer full-time contracts. The top athletes in sports like table tennis, cycling and badminton receive monthly subventions of around HK$30,000, a figure which would go a long way towards supporting full-time rugby contracts.
Soccer was a residential sport at the HKSI from 1982 until March 1997. It has now fallen by the wayside. It is up to rugby to carry the torch for team sports. And with sevens now in the Olympics, it is hard to see how the ESC will not give its backing. The future is bright.