Death by a thousand cuts
Like a thief in the night, the International Rugby Board has stolen the 'Jewel in the Crown' status away from the Hong Kong Sevens. What next?
Ever since the Hong Kong showpiece became part of the global sevens family 12 years ago, the writing has been on the wall. We have seen our lofty status being stripped away slowly by the world governing body. This year was a good example, when the IRB asked the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union to make room for Mexico in the 24-team tournament, the biggest on the HSBC Sevens World Series. Mexico made their debut at the cost of an Asian team. There was room for six Asian sides, including Hong Kong, but due to the IRB request, one berth for our regional friends had to be sacrificed.
This won't be the end of it, mark my words. It is understood the IRB, and some of the top teams, are unhappy with the overall standards of some of the Asian sides, for example Thailand and Taiwan, or even China and Malaysia. The feeling is the big core teams who are drawn with these sides in the preliminary pool play are at an advantage as they have an easier game and are able to pile on the points.
In their haste to make it a level playing field, they will continue to lobby for the exclusion of these Asian sides. The HKRFU faces a battle to convince the IRB that this goes against the very grain and foundations of the Hong Kong Sevens. The original idea of the event's founding fathers was that it would foster and help develop rugby in Asia. Where else will the minnows get the chance to play against the likes of New Zealand or England? Why take away that dream? Sadly, that principle has now been lost in today's new world of globalisation.
It has also resulted in this week's decision by the IRB to bring the Hong Kong Sevens on a par with the other eight legs of the world series by stripping away the extra points that the So Kon Po event offered. Hong Kong exclusively gave 30 points to the Cup champions.
Once again, the justification was 'to create a level playing field'. Hong Kong, by virtue of being the largest field - the other events are 16 strong - and for its illustrious history, had always offered more points to the champions. We were royalty. Now we are lumped with the commoners. We shouted from the rooftops that we were the 'Jewel in the Crown'. No more.
A disappointed HKRFU chief Trevor Gregory summed it up succinctly when he said it was a 'comedown'. It is huge, even though some others within the HKRFU felt it was as inevitable as night following day, what with the IRB calling the shots.
But long-time resident and Kowloon rugby stalwart John Bruce hit the nail on the head when he said it 'smacks of ingratitude'. Indeed, it has been the Hong Kong Sevens that has been the engine room behind the growth of sevens worldwide.
In the early days, the IRB and other venerable institutions like the RFU (England) looked down their noses and sniggered into their gin and tonics at the preposterous abbreviated version of the game. It took a lot of hard work from Hong Kong to convince them this was the way to go. The IRB was slowly won over, and first created a World Cup Sevens, in 1993, before setting up the world series in 1999.
One thing led to another, and soon the game was being touted as an Olympic sport. After one failed attempt - in 2005 - to be admitted to the family, rugby sevens finally won the vote of the International Olympic Committee in 2009 and the Rio Olympics will welcome the game back (fifteens were last played at the 1924 Games).
All this wouldn't have been possible without the Hong Kong Sevens, which has been the inspiration behind the entire movement that now sees rugby being played from Mexico to Madagascar.
Bruce is also right to label the decision to strip Hong Kong off its extra points as 'ingratitude'. And what is worse is the blow has come from someone close to the tournament. Beth Coalter, a longtime HKRFU official and 'Hong Kong Sevens Girl Friday', is now the IRB's tournament operations manager. She was the one to impart the news. In her present role, she has possibly forgotten how much it meant for Hong Kong to be regarded as number one.
Yet, everyone, including Coalter, the HKRFU and new title sponsors HSBC, are convinced the Hong Kong Sevens will still remain as the event every team want to win.
With Hong Kong being the only event offering prize money - US$150,000, with the champions taking home US$100,000 - that might be the case. But the fact of the matter is the HKRFU is no longer in full control of the event. The HKRFU is being given the run around.