Hong Kong Sevens


PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2012, 12:00am

They were fierce rivals on the pitch, but Jason Robinson and George Gregan were on the same team last week, as they spread their knowledge of and love for the game as ambassadors for sponsors HSBC.

Gregan is the most-capped rugby player in the history of the game, while Robinson was a star in both league and union. And they both have a World Cup gold medal to their name (Gregan won in 1999 with Australia before Robinson scored against a side captained by Gregan to help lift the title for England four years later). They sat down with the SMP for a wide-ranging chat on sevens, 15s and everything in-between.

How are you enjoying Hong Kong?

Jason Robinson: It's very good - it's my first time at the Hong Kong Sevens and I'm so excited. I've been to Dubai, I've been to Vegas, but this is the main event.

George Gregan: I've been here a few times and it's just a great event. It's always been the jewel in the crown for sevens players. I've also got family here - my wife's Hong Kong-Chinese, so it's always good to come back - and I know how to order some food and the important stuff!

JR: I'm glad I'm with George. I'd be struggling!

GG: He's had some wonton noodles and he's had the char siu and rice so we're on a roll. We've got Hong Kong in the blood - once you get it, it's there forever.

And you played here a few times?

GG: I was lucky enough in '94 and '95. I was 21 and it was my first international rugby experience on a big stage. I played with wonderful players - guys like Jason Little, Tim Horan, David Wilson, Ilie Tabua - he was my roommate and there's plenty of stories we won't go into! But also David Campese as well, and Jim Williams. We made the final and lost against a young Jonah Lomu. I think it was Gordon Tietjens' first coaching experience with the New Zealand team and he's become a legend. It was a great experience.

Jason, you famously played both league and union, but did you ever try your hand at sevens?

JR: I only played a little bit. I can remember playing for Wigan way back in the day. I think we were the first rugby league team to be invited to the Middlesex Sevens and we won it, but I've never played international sevens. You see the way it's progressed over the years to what we have now ... it's just fantastic. I would have loved to have played in this world series now.

GG: Like he's saying, everywhere you go now, it's always a great atmosphere. If you're 18 or 19, which a lot of these players are, you get to travel the world, have these really good experiences and develop the fundamental skill sets.

JR: I think, as well, you look at the tournament so far and you see how close it is. That's what you want to see as a spectator turning up. You know you've got a chance.

With sevens now in the Olympics and the effect that's had, do you see a specialised sevens player evolving over the next few years?

JR: I think the skill set will still be the same as 15s, but I think it's great that players have been contracted. It means they can be so much more professional in what they do, they can concentrate so much energy into it and as a result I think the standard is just getting better and better. The HSBC World Series is fantastic, but to think that you could, as a player, get an Olympic gold medal ...

GG: It's massive.

JR: We've got some medals between us and achieved some big things, but we'll never have one of those. So for those teams, investing for the Olympics is only going to help the game, help its exposure and get more players wanting to play and keep raising that standard.

GG: Every country wants to win as many Olympic medals as they can and it's a particularly exciting prospect for countries like China who haven't had rugby big on their radar. But now that it's an Olympic sport it's got some prominence and resources and is attracting good coaches. You've got some of the best international coaches going to different parts of the world and improving the quality of the rugby programmes and players, which improves the quality of competition.

And you might be involved with some of this in your new role on the Australian Rugby Union board?

GG: Yeah, the Rugby Players Association asked me to be their representative on the board, so I'm looking forward to the challenge, and to bring perspective from the players' side.

How is Australian rugby right now?

GG: We're doing reasonably well. It's a young squad. I think Robbie [Deans] has developed that squad well over the past few years. Obviously, they would have been disappointed with the World Cup result, losing in the semi-final. They had beaten New Zealand in the Tri-Nations to win that, and the Reds had won the Super 15, so they had some momentum. But for a lot of guys it was their first experience of a World Cup, so I think they're building nicely for the next series against the British and Irish Lions. Although we're not getting too far ahead because we've got the Champions Trophy where Argentina have been accepted into the Tri-Nations, so it's going to be an exciting year.

JR: You have got some good young players, Kurtley Beale, Quade Cooper, David Pocock - you look at how they're going to develop over the next 12 months.

GG: Exactly.

JR: Then you look at it from a British Lions point of view and you see Sam Warburton, George North, Ben Morgan - I think it's all gearing up.

GG: It's a belter of a series isn't it?

JR: In 2001 when we played against Australia, we actually let them win that one, so it's time to put the record straight.

GG: That was all part of a 12-year cycle, just to build it up?

JR: Yeah, we knew George was going to be too old for the next one!

As an England fan you must be delighted right now?

JR: It's been fantastic. English rugby has taken a good pounding, especially over the last World Cup. There's been so many people disillusioned. The whole structure was in a bit of a mess and if it meant it had to come to that to bring about change then maybe it's not been a bad thing. Stuart Lancaster has really transformed this English team, so much so that you speak to people now and the pride has really been put back into English rugby.

Are you surprised they haven't appointed Lancaster full-time?

JR: There are growing calls for him and rightly so, but whoever goes in has got to be the right person. So I understand why they don't want to make a decision straight away. I think Martin Johnson lacked a bit of support, but now the RFU have sorted out a lot of the other problems in their structure, the new coach will get the help he needs.

Is the perfect combination a Nick Mallett or someone with that experience, but with Lancaster as part of his team?

JR: I think they've got to keep Lancaster in some position. England were woeful in the World Cup. All of a sudden I've never seen Twickenham as excited for a long, long time. Nobody's saying a bad thing about him and if it's based on results he's got to get the job, it's as simple as that.

And a few of your old rivals were out here for the Tens?

JR: A few of the guys tried to rope me into playing in it, but I wasn't having any of it!

GG: There's Mils [Muilaina] obviously, and I'm good friends with Justin Marshall - he's out here as well. I played with him last year with the Asia-Pacific Barbarians and it was a really good experience, though we got beaten in the final. We worked on a two-minute rotation. We had to put our hands up to come off, but as soon as we got to the final old Justin couldn't help himself. He had to stay out there as self-appointed captain for the duration! It's just what makes rugby special. You've got all these different competitions, people from all parts of the world, but we're sharing the same language so to speak, which is rugby union.