Sorry, David, you can't fight Goliath

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 February, 2012, 12:00am


After 36 years of the Hong Kong Sevens, we will have a system of institutionalised sporting apartheid heaped on our event thanks to the International Rugby Board's decision to expand the HSBC Sevens World Series to 15 teams next season. It is nothing but a form of apartheid when you consider that 12 teams at next month's Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens will run onto the field knowing they stand no chance of winning the Cup competition. It's like getting on the bus on a hot summer's day and being told you can't sit in the best air-conditioned section. This is what the IRB has done by splitting the famous event into two divisions.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for expanding the number of core teams in the world series from 12 to 15. But it should have been done within the framework of the existing format and not by introducing this ridiculous, two-tier format of haves and have-nots.

The Hong Kong Sevens made headlines around the world this week with the IRB disclosing its plans for the 2012-13 season. We will have three new teams taking part alongside Argentina, Australia, England, Fiji, France, Kenya, New Zealand, Samoa, Scotland, South Africa, the United States and Wales.

So far so good, but then the twist in the tale, the knife in Hong Kong's midriff - Canada, China, Guyana, Japan, Philippines, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Tonga, Uruguay, Zimbabwe and our own Hong Kong will not be able to compete for the plum prize next month. They can only look in the shop window and dream of the goodies on display. The argument of one-sided games at the tournament becoming a thing of the past might hold true, but then try telling that to the Russians, who came within a whisker of upsetting England last year in the Cup quarter-finals, bowing out 10-7. Or Tonga, who defeated Fiji at the Wellington Sevens last week and reached the Cup competition. Or try telling it to Canada, a core team a few seasons ago, who also reached the Cup competition in Wellington and have done the same in Hong Kong in the past.

Yes, this new format gives new countries the chance to become a core team on the sevens circuit, and makes it more competitive by creating a promotion-relegation system whereby the bottom three teams among the 15 will be demoted and have to earn their right to stay in the elite group. But it has also taken the gloss off the Hong Kong Sevens.

Ever since the event began in 1976, it has always been one where every team could dream of reaching the Cup competition. Yes, it might be unthinkable that a side like Uruguay would go so far, but is it right to take away the dreams of men? What would a band of Hong Kong players led by Pieter Schats and including Simon Deane, Peter Dennis, Neil Barclay, Mark Ashall, Craig Pain, Phil Kilazoglou, Ian Strange and Eamon McManus have felt on the eve of the 1989 Hong Kong Sevens if they were told, 'Sorry chaps, you can't play in the main event'. That year Hong Kong created history when they reached the Cup tournament.

Rowan Varty and the class of 2012 will not have the same opportunity, simply because the world governing body is of the mind to use this world-famous event - one responsible for raising the profile of rugby sevens so high it is in the Olympics - as a qualifier.

Not only has the IRB stripped the event of its jewel-in-the-crown status by taking away the extra points on offer - apparently because England whinged - it has now reduced the tournament's status even further. We were once royalty, now we are part of the common folk, which is quite okay as long as we are not being ostracised. But this is what has been done. IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset hailed this move as one that creates more opportunities for all. He is wrong. Yes, more teams will play in the series next year, but where is the equal opportunity of being able to compete for the Cup?

What the IRB should have done is to stick to the same formula, six pools of four, with all of them playing for the same prize. How far the 12 non-core teams go in the tournament would decide the three teams who would join the core sides next season. If Russia or Tonga were to reach the Cup, they would then qualify directly. The winners of the Bowl, if they were a non-core team, would then be the next step and so on.

I have spoken to countless players over the years, and it's clear from them that there is nothing like the thrill of running onto the pitch at the Hong Kong Stadium to face New Zealand or Fiji. David v Goliath contests in sports are always enthralling. The IRB has robbed the Hong Kong Sevens of its romanticism.