Youngsters key to getting elite funding
So you think today is a red-letter day for Hong Kong rugby? While the performance on the pitch will be crucial to deciding if Hong Kong become a core team in the world series next season, there is a bigger event in June.
That is the Under-20 Sevens Asian Championship in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, and a lot will be riding on the city's team. If they reach the top three in this tournament, rugby will qualify to become an elite sport at the Hong Kong Sports Institute from next year to 2017.
Not only would it bring massive financial dividends, it would cement rugby's place in the local sporting fraternity. A fraternity that has been treating the game as something alien, just a foreign invasion in March when the streets of Causeway Bay and Wan Chai are overrun by drunken gweilos.
That is hardly the case anymore - not since Hong Kong won silver medals at the East Asian Games here in 2009, followed by a similar medal at the Asian Games in Guangzhou in 2010. Those successes brought rugby a high degree of recognition among the local Chinese.
The Chinese media began to take the game more seriously - streakers at the Sevens were their only fascination before that - resulting in greater public awareness.
Now rugby has another chance to solidify its foundation by becoming an elite sport at the Sports Institute in Sha Tin.
To gain that status, a sport has to produce two results at senior level and two at junior level on the world or Asian stage. At the senior level, Hong Kong also excelled in last season's Asian Sevens Series, winning a silver medal and a bronze at the two ranking events in Shanghai and Borneo. The team also won two golds in the non-ranking events in Goa and Bangkok.
At the junior level, the under-20 sevens team finished second at last year's Asian championship. A similar feat at this year's event - or better still winning - would ensure a second junior result. This would tick all the boxes and fulfil the criteria for becoming an elite sport. 'It would be huge for Hong Kong rugby if we do become an elite sport. It would mean we have access to government funding on a more permanent basis,' said Trevor Gregory, chairman of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union. 'Talk about pressure. A lot is riding on the under-20s.'
The dividends are enormous. Rugby would be the first team sport to enter the Sports Institute since soccer was kicked out almost two decades ago. It would bring the game much-needed resources. Although the HKRFU takes care of its own, the added bonus of support from the government-funded institute would be nothing to sneeze at. Among the benefits are funding for the whole elite training programme, including training facilities, coaching, science and medical support, equipment, training and competition overseas.
The amount of funding depends on the size of the programme - that is the number of full-time athletes, the number of competitions and so on. But on average, those 15 sports fortunate to be part of the Sports Institute get roughly HK$3 million each annually, some as much as HK$7 million.
Falling into this latter category is a handful of sports with Olympic hopes such as badminton, cycling and windsurfing. They are the best of the best. If rugby makes the grade, and with the 2016 Olympics including sevens as a medal sport, the game could gain even more. A coaching team is in place at the HKRFU, but by becoming part of the family in Sha Tin, there is the chance to expand the number of high-performance coaches for sevens.
Already the men's sevens squad have had a taste of what the future might hold. Since winning the silver medals at the East Asian Games and the Asian Games, they have been getting monthly elite training grants from the institute. Five players who continue to receive support will be on the field today. If the under-20s succeed in Malaysia, these players and many others could see their monthly stipend increase fivefold.
Hong Kong coach Dai Rees has stated that becoming a core team will be a 'big headache' for the HKRFU. 'It will be an exciting headache to have,' he said. One of the headaches will be whether the union should contract players full-time with the 2012-13 world series to expand to 10 tournaments, including a new stopover in a South American destination, tipped to be Argentina or Brazil.
The entry of rugby into the Sports Institute would go a long way to helping pave the way for such a scheme to become a reality. This would fit perfectly with any fresh initiative the HKRFU should choose to bring in. So while cheering on our men today, spare a thought for our boys, too.