Be careful what you wish for
Forget the challenges on the field, the biggest hurdle for Hong Kong if they became a world series team next season would be finding a group of players who could commit to playing in 10 tournaments, says Dai Rees, head of performance at the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union.
Gazing into a crystal ball, Rees said there was no denying that the HKRFU would be faced with some serious decisions if they had to play a full schedule against teams who are fully professional.
Among the main issues would be contracting players. The HKRFU experimented with this a few years ago when a small group of players, including current captain Rowan Varty and Keith Robertson, were given financial support.
Another hurdle is players being able to devote time away from their jobs to play, train and travel - especially when the series takes in three consecutive weeks as it did this year with tournaments in South Africa, New Zealand and the United States.
It is unlikely fireman Kwok Ka-chun could take time off to scrum down for a period of 10 weeks concentrated into a six-month period. Rees says one of the biggest issues is moving from playing in a part-time international sevens programme into a full-time professional set-up.
'We have been playing in a restricted Asian Sevens Series [four tournaments solely for Asian teams] these past couple of seasons and having to move overnight into a full-time international series would be one of the hurdles we would face,' Rees said.
'All our players have careers outside rugby so would we be able to identify an elite group of performance players who could commit to 10 tournaments a year and the additional training needs?' he asked.
A small player base, although it has grown in recent years, would have to cope with an increased demand and, with injuries part and parcel of the game, Hong Kong could struggle if key players were unavailable, he said.
'The current squad is prepared as well as any tier one nation and our performance model is fully equipped to deal with the increased intensity of the IRB series,' Rees said. 'The critical difference, however, is we work with a relatively small group of elite performance players who could compete physically, mentally and skill-wise at tier-one level.
'The loss of five such players through injury, for instance, would result in us struggling to compete. This is simply down to critical mass which has grown over the past three years, but is still very small in relation to other lead nations,' he said.
Former Hong Kong head of performance Ivan Torpey introduced a pilot project whereby a handful of players were contracted to the HKRFU.
Among the elite group was Varty, who put on hold his career as a lawyer (he is now back in the legal profession), Robertson (an events manager now) and former Hong Kong captain Mark Wright, who is still the only full-time rugby player having just finished a season in Japan for second division Shokki Shuttles.
Rees said funding would be needed to ensure a transition between balancing a full-time working career with a playing career, hinting this would be the best option open to Hong Kong, rather than going down the full-time professional-player road.
'We need to consider and define 'full-time contract' players. There is a need within the professional game to strike a balance between training/playing and non-rugby activities to maximise performance. Some of our players have a perfect balance between their work careers and rugby.
'The scheme of a few years ago did not form part of a high-performance plan which referenced the domestic leagues in Hong Kong and the full-time international playing calendars within Asian rugby,' said Rees. 'Now, through a performance plan and support and funding from the HKSI [Sports Institute], the current squad are 'professional' in all aspects of their performance with specific players receiving the appropriate level of funding to allow them to train as full-time athletes while also progressing their personal careers.
'Some would argue this is the ideal model for all full-time professional sportsmen.'
Rees admitted qualification would be a double-edged sword.
'It would be cause for huge celebrations but would also cause a few headaches. But the strategic direction of the performance plan would not change a great deal either way,' Rees said.
'We need to keep focused on the bigger picture - that is developing at all levels within both codes of the game, sevens and 15s.'
Hong Kong's world ranking in the 15s game. They are ranked number two in Asia insevens but do not havea world ranking
The 12 men leading HK's challenge
Rowan Varty, 26
HK7s (including this year): 7
Salom Yiu Kam-shing, 24