Excitement grows over new Sevens
'Globalisation' has caught up with the Hong Kong Sevens according to Brian Stevenson, president of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union who, while nostalgic at the change in format to next month's showpiece, insisted that it would raise the intensity and excitement from day one.
'Yes, having been involved in this tournament from day one, it is a bit sad that we won't be able to see the so-called minnows take on the bigger sides, but what we will get is a lot more evenly matched games from the very first day,' Stevenson said last night.
And yesterday's draw for the 2012 Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens promised just that, as both the top 12 core teams, and the other 12 teams vying to become a core team next season, were organised into mouth-watering pools which promised no-holds-barred contests from the word go.
For the first time since the Hong Kong Sevens began in 1976, the March 22-25 tournament will be split into two competitions. The 12 core teams involved in the HSBC Sevens World Series will battle it out among themselves, while the remaining 12 teams will fight for one of three qualifying berths, with the International Rugby Board expanding the core teams from 12 to 15 next season.
But the splitting of the world-famous tournament into two distinct events has drawn widespread criticism for 'betraying the spirit of the tournament'.
'Since 1976, the Hong Kong Sevens has offered a unique opportunity in the world of rugby for the sport's smaller nations to play against its biggest. By segregating the tournament into halves, the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union has implemented a system that will mean the smaller nations are no longer offered the opportunity to play against the likes of New Zealand or England,' M.Lamb from Stanley wrote in the Post's letters page.
Stevenson said he could understand the criticism. 'But this is the challenge of globalisation. Yes, 12 teams cannot reach the Cup competition this year but they are fighting for something much bigger - the chance to join the big boys [in all legs of the world series next season].'
Hong Kong head coach Dai Rees said the change would 'freshen' the tournament. 'As far as the top tier is concerned, the top teams know they cannot afford to slip up. From our perspective, the overall picture will mean we will get more competitive games with a huge reward at the end of it. It's given the players a focus.'
Rod Mason, the long-standing tournament operations director, believed Hong Kong had to accept the new format. 'It is better than being told by the IRB that the Hong Kong Sevens are being reduced to 16 teams, to bring it in line with the other events. Ours is still a special tournament and it gives Hong Kong the best of both worlds,' he said.
It was also thumbs up from the Hong Kong players, with Rowan Varty, skipper of the squad at the HSBC Asian Sevens Series, saying the decision by the IRB to expand the tournament to 15 teams next season offered Hong Kong a rare opportunity.
'We players are all happy about it. It has always been our goal to play in more tournaments in the series and now we have a realistic chance of achieving that. The door has been opened and it is up to us to take our chance. As for not playing against the top teams, we will get our chance the week after Hong Kong at the Japan Sevens,' Varty said.
There were cheers from the Hong Kong players at the end of last night's draw. At first glance, pool D - Tonga, Uruguay, Hong Kong and China - looked somewhat easier than the other two groups.
'We wanted to avoid coming up against the physical sides like Canada and Russia in the opening rounds. Tonga are physical too, but tend to play in fits and starts. Uruguay are still a developing side while we know China very well,' said Rees.
The last time Hong Kong met Tonga at the Hong Kong Sevens, a few seasons ago, the home team won. The other side of the coin is last year's loss to China in the Shield quarter-finals.
'It was a very tired team who faced China that day and I won't read too much into that result. What matters is that we have beaten them a couple of times in the Asian Series last year and ours is a different side this year. Last year all the focus was on the Asian Five Nations [15-a-side] but this time our aim is to try and become a core IRB team in 2013,' Rees added.
HSBC Sevens World Series
Samoa, England, Argentina, Kenya
New Zealand, South Africa, Wales, USA
Fiji, Australia, France, Scotland
HSBC Sevens World Series Qualifier
Tonga, Uruguay, Hong Kong, China
Canada, Spain, Zimbabwe, Philippines
Portugal, Russia, Japan, Guyana