On a terrific run
Hong Kong are knocking on the door of the big boys' club today. Barring the way are old rivals Japan, first-up, and then either Spain or Tonga if the first hurdle is safely overcome.
With the team unbeaten after the first two days, Hong Kong are on a roll. But head coach Dai Rees is well aware that all the hard work will count for nothing if results are not produced today as they go in search of at least third place in the qualifying tournament to secure a spot as a core team in next year's HSBC Sevens World Series.
Ross Armour, the Valley 15s fullback who is playing in the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens for the first time, was asked recently what his best moment was in his career, and replied: 'It is yet to come.'
Armour, who has fitted in seamlessly as a forward, could have his answer today, with Hong Kong on the verge of one of their biggest achievements in sevens history - joining New Zealand and the rest in the world's elite next season.
He has been one of the many livewires for the home team and was in fine form yesterday as Hong Kong finished unbeaten in their pool to claim a quarter-final berth in the world series qualifying tournament against Asian champions Japan.
'I don't know what all the fuss is about. Perhaps if they gave me the ball more often we would do a lot better,' Armour joked. 'But really, it was all about a team performance, and every single guy from one to 12 has performed.'
With skipper Rowan Varty leading from the front, Hong Kong have been the form team of the tournament in the qualifiers, delighting the sold-out crowd at Hong Kong Stadium with their unbeaten run, including wins over Tonga, 26-7, and China, 29-5 yesterday.
Along with an opening night 17-14 victory over Uruguay, that meant Hong Kong topped the list of eight teams making it through to the quarter-finals. They will meet number eight Japan, who just scraped past China thanks to a better points differential.
Trevor Gregory, chairman of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union, said: 'I can't believe it - meeting Japan again. I had hoped that at least three teams from Asia would be in contention for the final four places.'
That will be the initial goal of Hong Kong: to get past Japan and enter the semi-finals. They will then meet the winners of Tonga v Spain. Win that and they are certain of a core-team berth. Lose and they will have to win the third-place play-off. In the bottom half of the draw, Russia come up against Canada and Portugal meet Zimbabwe.
Rees said: 'We will approach Japan as we have approached all the other teams so far. We know them well, but at the same time, they know us, too.'
Hong Kong began the day needing just one victory to ensure they would be in the picture today. They went one step better, upsetting Tonga and then returning a couple of hours later to hammer China into submission.
Armour, winger Salom Yiu Kam-shing (starting because Tom McQueen had been cited for a dangerous tackle the previous night against Uruguay and had a one-match ban), Anthony Haynes and Varty all greeted the delirious crowd after touching down against Tonga.
The fancied visitors, who grabbed the prized scalp of Fiji this season, scored first but it was then all one-way traffic. Hong Kong dominated the breakdown, recycling the ball superbly to put sustained pressure on Tonga. The Pacific Islanders, in mourning after their king died in Hong Kong last week, were stunned by the Hong Kong onslaught.
China were also blown away. A tight first half ended 10-5 with Hong Kong's tries coming from Keith Robertson and Haynes. Kwok Ka-chun added a third soon after the break before Ally Maclay and Lee Jones came off the bench to put the icing on the cake.
Rees had nothing but praise for the team, tipping his hat to a smart approach and the ability of the players to read the finer points of the game.
'It's all been about us focusing on the kick-offs, our lineouts and our set pieces, and then seeing how the opposition play against us,' Rees said. 'The core teams spend hours on these finer points, something we don't get a chance to do. We have been focusing on this over the past four weeks.
'The team couldn't have changed their approach a year ago, but now they can. They are playing smart. We will have to do the same tomorrow.
'It was all about performing on day one and day two, and getting into the quarter-finals and assessing where we are. What is great is that we are in good form, and we haven't picked up any injuries.'
Hong Kong's smart approach has been highlighted by the alacrity with which they try to move the ball away from contact situations, although when it comes to the crunch, everyone has fronted up, with forwards Armour, Haynes and Kwok to the fore.
Robertson, probably the smallest player in the tournament, who has been an outstanding playmaker, said: 'We are not the biggest side, but we are playing with a plan. 'We won't change anything tomorrow, this group wants to be part of something special.'
Yes, they want to be upgraded to first class and travel around the world.