Switch necessary to help minnows, insists IRB
One-off David versus Goliath clashes have not helped the smaller nations to develop as hoped. That, plus the need to unearth three new core teams for the HSBC Sevens World Series, is what led to the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens being split into two separate competitions, says the International Rugby Board.
The top competition will feature the 12 pre-existing core nations of the World Series, playing for Cup, Plate and Bowl honours as usual.
The secondary competition will feature the 12 others vying for a top-three spot to become additional core nations in next season's World Series. Sunday's third/ fourth-place play-off could well be the most significant match of the whole three days.
The IRB insists this format is not a permanent one for Hong Kong and it will look closely at the outcome of this weekend's action at the only 24-team tournament in the World Series before deciding what action to take later in the year.
'The days of romanticism [giants against minnows] have not shown that non-core teams have been able to grow or become stronger,' IRB sevens tournament director Beth Coalter said. 'Our statistics have shown that a one-off annual competition in Hong Kong against the top teams doesn't develop these teams. They need more competition, and regularly.'
With the IRB set to increase the number of tournaments next season to 10 - this year Japan has come on board - the new core teams will face a huge increase in competition. '[The David vs Goliath scenario] is the same at all tournaments where non-core teams participate,' she said. 'But now [in Hong Kong] the qualifier teams will have the ability to compete against teams of the same or similar standard, which should improve their readiness for competition at the World Series level.'
With all the other eight legs in the series being 16-team events, it means only four non-core teams take part in each of them as opposed to 12 in Hong Kong.
'This is a transition year to establish the 15 core teams,' Coalter said. 'Promotion and relegation will commence in the 2012-13 season and the process for that will be decided following this year's series.
'Hong Kong has always had the capacity for new developments and initiatives, and it is perfectly placed to hold the competition to find the three new core teams.'
While a few observers believe the unique nature of the Hong Kong Sevens will soon become a distant memory, all agree that splitting the tournament into two separate competitions will add a competitive streak at both ends of the spectrum.
'I don't think there is any doubt it takes away the romanticism,' Scotland coach Graham Shiel said. 'It's a shame that's the case, but it's the nature of where the tournaments are moving and evolving and it is perhaps inevitable romanticism is removed.'
Whether a permanent change or temporary experiment, the decision has gone down well with the 24 teams - so far.
'It is an outstanding concept,' New Zealand coach Gordon Tietjens said. 'Over the years we had 24 teams turn up in Hong Kong and everyone pitched in with everyone. But if you look at it, teams want to progress and move forward. No one wants to see Sri Lanka get beaten by 80 or 90 points.
'New teams like Brazil or Morocco need to be competing with the best and playing at the highest level where possible and the only way for them to improve is to go to these satellite events, if you like, to qualify. Some teams will make it into the elite group to mix it with the top sides.'
Hong Kong debutants the Philippines were glad they would not be thrown in the deep end straight away.
'I can't remember the last time a small team beat a New Zealand. It is a daunting task to take on these guys and there is a difference between romance and reality,' said Philippines coach Matt Cullen. 'Splitting the tournament is an advantage for us. We don't have to come face-to-face with a big team, but having said that we have a big task in our group against the likes of Canada.'
Fiji's former Hong Kong winning captain and now coach Alifereti Dere, said: 'I think this is in the best interests of the game. More teams playing at a higher level is better for the development of the game.'
Wales coach Paul John believes second-tier teams would benefit as they will be seeking as much competition as possible in the run-up to the 2016 Olympics.
'I would imagine most of the sides are very grateful, especially given the growth of Sevens and the inclusion in the Olympics. Countries would relish the chance to be part of the top series and for those teams in the qualifiers this is a great opportunity,' said John.
The new-look format would 'change the spirit of the tournament a little', Argentine coach Nicolas Fernandez Lobbe said, but he added: 'Both tournaments will be very exciting as there is a lot to play for.'
South Africa coach Paul Treu said the move was 'inevitable and bound to happen'. 'You can't continue along the same process where you keep inviting teams to be part of the series. This is an opportunity for teams to be part of the world series and play in all the tournaments and it's a chance for the IRB to set up a process where teams can qualify, get into the world series, and qualify for the Olympics,' Treu said.
England coach Ben Ryan believed Hong Kong would continue to be a great spectacle. 'It is important there is promotion and relegation that gives sides a meaningful chance of developing and becoming core teams,' Ryan said. 'I don't think the changes will fundamentally alter what a great spectacle Hong Kong is. It is, and will remain, a special event.'
Another controversial decision - to bring the Hong Kong Sevens in line with the rest of the tournaments by making the World Series points rewards the same - was for the sake of uniformity.
The IRB's Coalter added: 'With the growing importance and competitiveness of the series, and with additional tournaments coming on board, it was felt the points needed to be equal across all events, particularly for the next few years with the series leading up to the Olympics.'
The number of 'core teams' who will play in the world series next year. The top three in this weekend's qualifier will be part of the elite