Career comes first for Robertson
Hong Kong rugby has lost one of its most exciting players in Keith Robertson and more will follow unless structure changes
It was inevitable that Keith Robertson chose to put self before country, or in this case the Special Administrative Region, and opted to pursue a career as a pilot rather than take part in a Rugby World Cup Sevens under the shadow of the Kremlin. Robertson, a popular figure during the Hong Kong Sevens, left this week for Australia to undergo a 14-16-month training course with Cathay Pacific.
As a rugby player, Robertson was one of the smallest on the international scene but he made up for his lack of size with superior vision and playmaking abilities. Hong Kong coach Dai Rees has always maintained the pint-sized flyhalf was one of the best players in his squad.
It is a pity Robertson will be missing as Hong Kong bid to qualify for the World Cup in Moscow next June. That road starts with next weekend's Borneo Sevens in Kota Kinabalu, the first of three ranking tournaments in the 2012 HSBC Asian Sevens Series.
Hong Kong, who finished second to Japan in this series last year, are tipped to clinch one of three berths available for Asia at the World Cup qualifiers in Singapore in November. To ensure the path is smooth, Hong Kong hope to be in the opposite half of the draw to Japan when this tournament kicks off, thus increasing their chances of qualifying by reaching the final.
It is imperative they be seeded one or two - assuming Japan are the other top seeds - when all three ranking events in the Asian Sevens Series (Borneo, Shanghai and Mumbai) are over. Without Robertson, the task has became a lot harder. He has proven a class apart many times, especially at the past six Hong Kong Sevens and at the 2010 Asian Games and 2009 East Asian Games, when Hong Kong emerged with silver medals (beaten by Japan to the gold both times).
Earlier this year, at the Hong Kong Sevens, his absence in a crucial match (once again against Japan) probably cost Hong Kong core-team status in the HSBC Sevens World Series. He was banished for an uncharacteristic spear tackle in the opening minutes of the game, leaving Hong Kong with six players for the rest of the match. Although the squad played their hearts out, defeat was cruel and left the hosts out of the running for one of three core-team berths.
It was a blessing in disguise for the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union, which would have had to grapple with the thorny issue of contracting players to the national sevens squad if we had become part of the world series. Most of the players - who hold day jobs - find it hard enough to commit themselves to playing in one IRB tournament (the Hong Kong Sevens) and three or four Asian Sevens Series events as well as 15-a-side games.
Just imagine if Hong Kong had won core-team status? It would have meant playing in nine tournaments around the world. For a union with a small player base, where individuals like Robertson are crucial members of both the 15s and sevens squad, it would have been all but impossible to field a part-time unit.
Robertson was one of three key players contracted four years ago by the HKRFU - the other two being Mark Wright and Rowan Varty. But this flirtation with professionalism was shortlived and abandoned after just one season. Hong Kong went back to the old ways of relying on part-time players (with a professional mentality) giving it their best shot.
Obviously, the shelf life of such players is very short. Careers outside the field of play are of utmost importance. Players like Varty, who delayed his career as a lawyer to play professionally in Japan, sooner or later have to give up their dream. They have to get a job.
Robertson is the latest statistic. And he won't be the last. When it boils down to deciding between a work career and playing rugby, the outcome is crystal clear. Robertson said he had already played in a World Cup Sevens (Dubai in 2009) and that while it had been a hard decision to forsake the chance of playing in another, he needed to look after his future. A career as a pilot makes a lot more dollars and sense. Of course, once he is a qualified pilot, it will be a different story - and he is young enough to pick up where he left off.
Unless the HKRFU begins to make it attractive for players by offering substantial contracts, there will be more Robertsons taking flight. This is part of Hong Kong rugby's fabric. The best players might not always be available. We will have to make do with what we have.