Hong Kong's standing as the 'Jewel in the Crown' of the HSBC Sevens World Series has suffered a big blow after the International Rugby Board ruled the biggest tournament in the series should fall into line with the other eight legs and offer the same number of points.
Hong Kong Rugby Football Union chairman Trevor Gregory admitted it was a comedown for the showpiece tournament of the series. But he was adamant the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens next March would still retain its No1 status by other means.
'Yes, you could say it is a comedown. We have lost our status as the tournament which offered the most number of points in the series. Their [IRB] rationalisation was that everybody has to be on the same playing field,' Gregory said.
The Hong Kong Sevens is the only 24-team tournament in the series, the rest are 16. For the past 12 years, the event - since the IRB came on board and created a world series - has been accorded No1 status simply by having more points on offer. New Zealand, who defeated England in the World Cup final this year, received 30 points. Cup winners at other tournaments received 24 points.
'All tournaments should offer the same points,' IRB sevens operations manager Beth Coalter (pictured) said. 'Winning in Hong Kong did not properly reflect the overall performances of the competing teams, and as with Formula One, all tournaments should be equal.'
'While the points system may have changed, the importance of the Hong Kong event has not.
'Awarding all teams that participate throughout the series [the same points system] will enable a proper ranking system to be in place, particularly in the lead-up to the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Moscow in 2013.'
However, Gregory said the Hong Kong event would remain the top event. 'Along with the points changes, there are likely to be some changes to our format, too. We are still waiting to hear what these changes will be and hopefully these changes will leave something unique for Hong Kong,' he said.
'We are confident we will still be the jewel in the crown. We are still the only tournament in the world which offers prize money, and all the teams still regard Hong Kong as the special one.'
The decision received mixed feelings in the rugby community. Some were outraged at the decision to diminish Hong Kong's standings, while others said it was part of the world series' evolution. 'Perhaps it might be progress, but this smacks of ingratitude,' said Kowloon stalwart John Bruce, referring to the fact that the Hong Kong Sevens was the catalyst behind the formation of the world series. 'The IRB has created a magnificent sevens circuit, but it seems they are an organisation who want full control of everything. This is a shame.'
Former HKRFU chairman John Molloy said: 'It is inevitable, I suppose. I'm surprised it took so long and I can understand the IRB's view that it is appropriate for all tournaments to offer the same number of points. I don't think it detracts in any way from Hong Kong. People will always view Hong Kong as the one they want to win. We are recognised as the major tournament.'
This season all tournament winners will get 22 points, with the runner-up receiving 19. For the first time, a third-place play-off has also been introduced. South Africa, who defeated hosts Australia in the opening leg of the 2011-12 series last weekend in Gold Coast to claim third place, received 17 points.
The Hong Kong Sevens offers total prize money of US$150,000, with the winners taking home US$100,000.
HSBC, which has returned as co-title sponsors of the Hong Kong Sevens, said it believed the tournament would retain its status.