Has the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union lost control of the Sevens? On the surface it looks like the International Rugby Board is calling the shots after recent happenings both on and off the field. Gone are the days when the HKRFU could decide what was best for the most popular sporting event in town, and indeed the most famous sevens tournament in the world. Ever since the Hong Kong Sevens became part of the IRB Sevens World Series during the 1999-2000 season, there have been hints the union was no longer fully in control of its destiny.
All those fears have come to a head this year. The presence of Mexico and the looming shadow of HSBC over the world series are clear evidence of the HKRFU having to make decisions in co-operation with the IRB. While I have no axe to grind with the Mexicans being here - indeed they have added plenty of colour - the IRB demanded Hong Kong make room for them.
Okay, it is for a good cause. Mexico will host the Pan-American Games in October in Guadalajara and rugby sevens is a medal sport for the first time at those games. So for the sake of promoting rugby in that region, the Hong Kong Sevens welcomed Mexico into the fold, hoping the experience would help the sombrero seven be worthy hosts themselves.
But was there a hidden agenda behind the IRB's arm-twisting - payback for Mexico supporting rugby's cause when the International Olympic Committee voted on sevens becoming a medal sport at the 2016 Games. Everyone knows there is plenty of horse trading behind the scenes when any major sporting decision is taking place.
IRB chief executive Mike Miller unequivocally denied any backroom deal had been struck. 'It's absolutely rubbish to say we had Mexico's vote. After all, the vote in favour of rugby in the Olympics was 81-8,' Miller pointed out.
Yet, Mexico's appearance has been at Asia's expense. When founding fathers Tokkie Smith and Ian Gow hatched their plan in 1976, their charter required the tournament to serve as an instrument for developing rugby in Asia. That lofty goal has been kept, laudably, by the union over the years. But ever since the Hong Kong Sevens became part of the IRB series, there has been an erosion of that core value. Forced to keep up with the times, the Hong Kong Sevens was quick to realise it couldn't operate on its own, and had to join the rest of the world. It has had to sacrifice some of its independence. What this meant was the HKRFU no longer had full control of the invitees' list. However, they still fought for, and got, six places - out of 24 - for Asian teams.
Sadly, that, too, has been diluted this year with the IRB demanding a spot for Mexico - Miller's denial aside. To make room, the HKRFU had no option but to inform Sri Lanka, the sixth-ranked team in Asia, they were not wanted. If this isn't enough evidence of the HKRFU's losing a hand on the tiller, the ouster of co-title sponsor Credit Suisse raises more obvious questions of IRB influence.
Credit Suisse came to the rescue at the 11th hour in 1998 to replace another financial institution, Peregrine, which went bust following the Asian financial crisis. It has supported the tournament for the past 14 years, but was told last year its services would no longer be needed when the current contract ends today. Why? Because IRB rules prevent a rival financial institution to HSBC - which came on board as title sponsors of the world series last October - having any presence in the series. Credit Suisse had wanted to continue its relationship but the door has been slammed shut.
Miller says the HKRFU had full knowledge and had approved HSBC's entry as title sponsor. 'We asked for, and got, the approval off all eight tournaments before singing on HSBC. Hong Kong and the other tournaments will benefit hugely by HSBC's involvement,' Miller says. HKRFU chairman Trevor Gregory admits the union has 'lost a degree of control' but argues it had 'approved' HSBC's entry for the 'greater good of the game'. 'I wouldn't deny that on the face of it, there is some erosion of our power,' Gregory said. 'But while we are sorry to see Credit Suisse go, we had no option because that's the way sponsorship works.
'The overall benefits of HSBC coming in outweigh the consequences [of losing Credit Suisse]. The IRB told us it had the best-ever deal with HSBC and needed the money to support the core teams' involvement in the series and we agreed, because we needed to be part of the series and we needed the big teams playing in it,' Gregory said. You can colour it any which way, but in the end, this is covert pressure from the IRB on Hong Kong.
'As for Asian countries at the Hong Kong Sevens, if we want to control our own destiny, then the standards of the sides has to improve,' Gregory added.
The question remains, why does Asia have to pay the price, why couldn't the HKRFU tell Spain or Zimbabwe they had to make room for Mexico? Because the HKRFU no longer calls the shots. ? What's to prevent the IRB from showing more teeth and placing more demands in years to come? It is time for the HKRFU to say 'enough'.