Hong Kong Sevens
The Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens is an international seven-a-side rugby tournament held every March as part of the Sevens World Series and featuring the world’s top teams.
How can something right feel so wrong?
Even the International Rugby Board doesn't know where the road is heading. But let's hope it gives us back our tournament in its entirety next year. The overwhelming view is that splitting the famous event into two distinct competitions will make for a better and more competitive tournament, but is this the best model for the IRB to unearth the three new core teams for next season?
Even the board is not sure as the promotion-relegation system will be looked into after the series ends. So it's not done and dusted that future Hong Kong Sevens will also be a two-tier structure. Thank heavens for that.
You can couch it in words of velvet but the IRB's decision robs the most-famous sevens tournament in the world of its romanticism. IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset hailed the move in the name of 'progress'. He said it would offer every nation the chance to gain core-team status. And he is right. This second-tier tournament has the champions of regional events taking part, and every country will have a chance to become a core team.
Hong Kong Rugby Football Union president Brian Stevenson called it 'globalisation'. He is right, too. As the Hong Kong Sevens has become enmeshed with the HSBC Sevens World Series, we are no longer the big fish swimming in our own pond. We are now part of the shoal in the global ocean.
Hong Kong national coach Dai Rees said it would 'freshen up' the tournament. He is right, too. There will no longer be one-sided matches and every game will be cut-throat. The big 12 know they cannot slip up, while teams like Hong Kong will get more competitive games.
So if everyone is right, what's the problem? Well, no-one wants to admit the big fish has been filleted. By having a two-tier competition, the IRB has hoodwinked the people into thinking the Hong Kong Sevens has been made extra special, the first amongst equals as it were.
We agree this new initiative of expanding the world series by three teams to 15 core sides is exciting. We applaud the IRB for trying to make the world stage bigger, and for giving more opportunities to teams who would otherwise only have the chance to figure in one leg of the series. But couldn't it have been done without splitting the Hong Kong Sevens down the middle? Couldn't the IRB have held a separate qualifying tournament and kept the rich history?
For the first time in 37 years, half the field will enter the competition knowing they have no chance of reaching the Cup competition. Is this the message the IRB wants to send to the rest of the world - that 12 teams taking part in the world-famous Hong Kong Sevens will have no opportunity to rub shoulders with the big boys? Russia and Portugal reached the Cup quarter-finals last year but have no right to play with the top 12 teams. New Russia coach Henry Paul, formerly of Wigan, Gloucester and England, said he was 'surprised' at the decision. While he understood the reasons behind a qualifying tournament, Paul said: 'It's a shame it is in Hong Kong as it is exciting with smaller sides taking on the big guns'. Russia nearly brought England to their knees last year, losing 10-7.
This is the essence of sport, the David versus Goliath contests. Why is the English FA Cup one of the most loved sporting tournaments? It is because every year you get some lesser known team pulling the rug from under the more-fancied and big-spending sides.
Many years ago, we predicted in these same columns the HKRFU ran the risk of losing control to the IRB. The signs have been there ever since we became a part of the world series in 1999-2000. First, the Sevens was stripped of its jewel-in-the-crown status with the IRB deciding it would no longer offer extra points. Last year New Zealand took home 30 points for winning the Cup competition. If they successfully defend their crown on Sunday, they will receive 22, on a par with the rest of the eight world series tournaments.
That done, the IRB has now stripped the Hong Kong Sevens of is romanticism. We would have understood if the IRB had made changes within the existing framework - for the 12 qualifiers to be in the usual mix of six pools of four teams each with no separation of status. How far they progressed would decide the core team status.
If, for instance, Russia advanced into the Cup competition, they would be a core team. If three other qualifiers joined Russia in the Cup, then it would be awarded to those with a better try tally, or points-differential, and so on. So while unearthing your three teams for promotion you could still maintain the spirit of the Hong Kong Sevens which has always been about giving everyone a go.