Alvin Sallay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 January, 2011, 12:00am

The horses I pick at Happy Valley normally trail in last. Just ask Eddie Fitzgibbon and his mates from the International Cricket Council who were with me on Wednesday night at the Hong Kong Cricket Club box. They thought I had the inside track, what with my connections to the tipsters at this newspaper, and plied me with requests for 'sure bets'. Those calls died down after the first couple of races.

Having said that, here is a great tip - HSBC will become title sponsor of the Hong Kong Sevens next year. It is a done deal, according to my sources.

The institution that played a huge role in the formative years of the Hong Kong Sevens is coming back. Both the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union and the bank itself played a straight bat the other day when I buttonholed officials individually. But it is apparently the worst kept secret in town.

I thought if anyone should know, it would be Giles Morgan, HSBC's giant lock forward and group head of sponsorship. So I cornered him and popped him the question last Wednesday at HSBC's announcement that it was backing the Asian Five Nations for another three years. With all the grace of a ballerina, Morgan sidestepped the question. He said for now the bank was happy sponsoring the collective series - the IRB Sevens World Series and the Asian Sevens Series - rather than the individual tournaments.

His explanation looked as solid as a smokescreen. Trevor Gregory, the HKRFU's genial chairman, had in earlier conversations said the union would welcome HSBC, or for that matter any other sponsor for the Hong Kong Sevens once the current lease with Credit Suisse lapses at the end of this year's tournament on March 27.

Credit Suisse has been a great friend to the Sevens, coming in at a time when the world and Asian economies were in a bad state in 1998. The tournament owes a lot to Credit Suisse, which rushed in to save an event in distress after investment firm Peregrine had collapsed weeks before the kick-off.

Along with Cathay Pacific, Credit Suisse has helped maintain the city's premier sporting event, if not improve it to unparalleled new heights.

But all good things must come to an end, allowing the world's global bank to step in. That is the feeling in rugby circles. All the signs point to an HSBC/Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Sevens from 2012.

It makes sense now that the bank is heavily involved in rugby, both in Asia and around the world. A few months ago, it came on board as the first title sponsor of the IRB Sevens Series, which takes in eight destinations around the world.

This season, seven of the eight stops will feature heavy HSBC branding at the grounds. The Dubai Sevens, which kick-started the 2010-11 season, was heavily festooned with red and white signage at the stadium. It was the same in George, South Africa, where the second leg was held. It will be the same at all other venues, barring Hong Kong Stadium from March 25-27. Due to the Hong Kong Sevens' existing agreement with Credit Suisse, the other bank will have to stay away. But for how long?

HSBC's announcement this week that it will be coming in as title sponsor of the fledgling Asian Sevens Series is further evidence of how it views the abbreviated form of the game as a crucial part of its marketing strategy worldwide. By expanding this series into India and Thailand, the bank increases its profile in two key markets, especially India.

In the past, HSBC was a major sponsor of Formula One racing, even having its own team. But that approach was soon felt to be ineffective and it was decided to move into other sports.

The two it chose were golf and rugby. There must be a prophet lurking somewhere in that establishment, for both choices have proven to be highly effective with the two sports being admitted into the Olympic family.

In 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, golf and rugby will become Olympic medal sports. The timing couldn't have been better. With these two sports - sevens in rugby - taking on Olympic status, all countries around the world will be eager to promote and develop the game.

The Olympic nod means that rugby will acquire cult status in places like China and India, two huge markets for the bank. China is already pouring resources into sevens. Each of the 22 provinces will be bound to take up the game for, at the next National Games, sevens will be featured for the first time.

Having acquired branding rights to the world series as well as the Asian series, HSBC's next move will surely be to align itself with the world's most popular sevens tournament. It makes sense.

So there you have it. You read it here first. Enjoy the Sevens this year - that is if you managed to get a ticket yesterday - for it will be the chance to say farewell to a sponsor that has stood beside the tournament in times of need.

Then get ready to welcome back the prodigal sponsor. This is my tip - believe it or not. But then again, as the cricket boys found out the other night, there is many a slip between the cup and the lip. Darn those horses.