Short game to take lead in long term
Is this just the usual bout of March madness or is rugby sevens about to set off on a radical course that could change the landscape of the game in this part of the world? It seems everyone has been bitten by the sevens bug, to the point that the scaled-down version of the game has gone viral in the region.
You can't escape the fact that rugby will be the name of the game for the next seven days, and even the most myopic - like the Hong Kong Tourism Board, which for so long ignored the fact the Hong Kong Sevens could be used to promote the city - will not be blind to this fact. That's especially so after the findings of a spectator survey at last year's Sevens. It showed the Sevens attracted 21,391 overseas visitors - filling more than half of the 40,000-seat Hong Kong Stadium. These fans stayed for an average six days and each spent about HK$13,000 on accommodation, shopping and dining.
The sevens bug also seems to have turned around the views of key people in charge of the game. Hong Kong head coach Dai Rees has long maintained that 15-a-side rugby is the bread and butter. But in the April edition of Rugby World, a magazine published in the UK, Rees is quoted as saying: 'Sevens suits Hong Kong better, it is probably the game of Asia.' An annoyed Rees said he was misquoted, and insisted that 15s continues to play a huge role in Hong Kong, especially with the city being ranked No 2 in Asia and at a high of 26th on the world stage.
Rees has always been a believer in 15s rugby, and says that is the engine which will drive the game forward. Talking about the progress the men's 15s team have made in recent months, he said: 'You have to set you bar high and we aim to qualify as the second Asian team [behind Japan] for the 2015 World Cup. The sevens at the 2016 Olympics in Rio is another goal in our sights, and may be a more realistic goal than the World Cup.'
So while tacitly recognising that Japan are streets ahead in the 15s game, Rees has come out strongly in support of sevens. Considering the numbers of players Hong Kong has, this is probably a sensible approach, even though Rees, in his role as head of performance, insists that both codes should be embraced rather than 'try to create competition between them'.
But not being able to afford the luxury of a large reservoir of players - many in the sevens squad also double up for 15s - Hong Kong could be caught in a quandary if Rowan Varty (who plays in the national 15s team, too) and his side do qualify and become a core team in the HSBC Sevens World Series next season.
Where does that leave the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union? Does it go down the path taken by its counterpart in China, which has all but ignored the 15s game in pursuing success on the sevens stage? China's new coach at the Hong Kong Sevens, Johnny Zhang Zhiqiang, has revealed China has shifted its focus to sevens, away from 15s. The Olympics is partly to blame for this. Once it was announced rugby sevens would become a medal sport at the 2016 Games in Rio, it was to be expected the Chinese Rugby Union would follow this road.
The central government and provincial governments have started to offer more support for rugby sevens, to the detriment of the longer version. A few years ago, when the Asian Five Nations kicked off, the Chinese were part of the top bracket, but they appear to have lost interest and have even dropped to the third division.
On the other hand, there has been a resurgence in the sevens game. Nine provinces have taken up the abbreviated version and have men's as well as women's teams, all pursuing the dream of representing the motherland at the Olympics. China's hunger for Olympic medals is well known and with sevens being the designated game, it is no surprise 15s has been ignored.
Even the major sponsor of rugby in Asia is believed to prefer sevens to 15s. While it backs both versions of the game, HSBC, which is returning as a co-title sponsor of the Hong Kong Sevens after a 15-year absence, has a soft spot for sevens, especially as it allows them to reach newer audiences faster and better.
As it is simpler to follow and, in the eyes of recent converts, more entertaining, sevens is ideal as a vehicle for developing the game in new markets. Hence the keen interest of sponsors. And with the bonus of being an Olympic sport, the 'viral' strain of rugby is rampant. If all this wasn't enough to convince the smaller rugby nations to adopt sevens, the stakes have been upped considerably by the International Rugby Board, which has decided to increase the core teams in its World Series next season from 12 to 15. This will give aspiring countries one more reason to devote additional resources to sevens rather than 15s.
For a place like Hong Kong, where resources - especially players - are limited, we could see sevens take the upper hand over 15s, if it hasn't already done so.