Winning all in the mind for HK
For a moment we thought that Hong Kong rugby coach Dai Rees was referring to the Grateful Dead. But no, on playing back the tape recorder, it was clear he said 'brain dead' and wasn't talking about his taste in music.
Rees was referring to some poor decision-making by Hong Kong at the Borneo Sevens last Sunday in the Cup semi-final against arch-rivals Japan that ended in a 15-12 defeat. The Welshman didn't pull his punches as he critically analysed the team's performance, which once again came up short at a critical juncture.
Most coaches might have softened the blow of defeat and tried to play down the fact that under pressure, Hong Kong had cracked once again. Not Rees, who was brave enough to spell out the problem, which was that Hong Kong had wilted mentally.
It is a worrying trend. When you consider that the men's sevens team have come out second best at the East Asian Games in 2009, the Asian Games last year and now the 2011 HSBC Asian Sevens Series, this amounts to a bad habit. On all three occasions, Hong Kong were beaten by Japan.
It is worrying if you consider that when qualifying comes along for the 2016 Rio Olympics, Hong Kong will most likely be vying with Japan for possibly one berth given to Asia.
But it is not only Japan that Hong Kong have to be concerned about. South Korea, China, even Kazakhstan are all potential banana skins. The Koreans showed they are a dangerous entity when they defeated Hong Kong in the Shanghai Sevens final. That, too, was a come-from-behind victory, where Hong Kong were leading comfortably with about three minutes to go before their opponents tied the game and then won it in extra-time, another example of fading mentally.
The cutting edge to sport is mental. The athlete who is more focused or the team who are more determined always come out the winners. Perhaps it is time the Hong Kong rugby team spend a bit more time on the couch rather than out on the training field.
As far as physical preparation goes, the players are superbly conditioned. Fitness coach Nathan Stewart has done a remarkable job and turned an amateur team into a side who are highly competitive against a professional outfit like Japan.
But it all boils down to being cool under stress, and in this instance, it might be useful if the sevens squad make more use of the facilities available at the Sports Institute for mental conditioning, or better if the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union added a psychologist to the large support staff that accompanies the team.
Rugby sevens is now supported by the Sports Institute under the Individual Athlete Support Scheme. They were first funded for winning the silver medal at the East Asian Games, and this has been continued until March 2012, due to the team winning silver at the Asian Games in Guangzhou. The players have the opportunity to use the services of four full-time sports psychologists at the Sports Institute.
This support would be boosted further if rugby becomes an elite sport. The results in the Asian Sevens Series already support such an application. Hong Kong finished the two ranking events with an overall tally of five points - finishing runners-up in Shanghai and third in Borneo - to be placed second in the 12-team series. This gives valid points to the eligibility process to become an elite sport. If the women or juniors get comparable results, rugby should earn itself the right to join the 15 other elite sports - none of which are no team sports - at the Sports Institute.
Next year, the Asian Sevens Series will expand to include Bangkok and by 2013 there will be four ranking events - Shanghai, Borneo, Bangkok and most likely Goa, India.
This Asian Sevens Series not only gives Hong Kong a useful yardstick to measure progress, but it is also likely to play a major role when Olympic qualifying comes up, probably in 2014 or 2015. If the International Rugby Board uses the same format as it does for the World Cup Sevens, then we are likely to see an Asian qualifying event from which one team will go to Rio de Janeiro for the 12-team Olympic tournament.
The Asian ranking system will come into play when the seeding is done - and it will be vital, as it will separate the top two teams on paper until the final. Japan are Asia's number one team. Hong Kong are second. If the Olympic qualifiers were to take place next month, or next year, then we would have Japan and Hong Kong in two different halves of the draw, seeded to meet only in the final.
It is high time Hong Kong fix this trend of losing the big games by snatching defeat from certain victory. They have to train the players to be mentally tough so that they will compete to their fullest potential.