Hong Kong's World Cup qualification hopes have suffered a blow after playmaker Keith Robertson put his sporting career on hold to train as a pilot.
The flyhalf, one of Hong Kong's best players, will miss the entire HSBC Asian Sevens Series, which this season serves as the ranking tournament for the Asian World Cup qualifiers in Singapore in November. And he may be unavailable for the tournament proper in Moscow next year should Hong Kong qualify.
"Replacing Keith will be tough but it isn't a make-or-break deal," coach Dai Rees insisted. "Keith grew into the pivot position over a number of years, and we have been looking at his potential absence for a while, and have been fortunate in having some depth in this position."
Robertson will leave this week for Australia to join Cathay Pacific's pilot training programme, following in the footsteps of former Hong Kong 15s captain and centre Tom McColl and flanker Mark Goosen. He is expected to be out of action for 16 months.
"I have been thinking about my future for quite a while now, and with Goose and Tom having gone through the same programme, it made me aware of the opportunities of living in Hong Kong and still playing rugby after completing the programme," Robertson said. "It is about the right time for me to do something. I have had a good run with rugby up until now. But I have to think about the future too, and look at the bigger picture."
A key member of the sevens squad for the past six seasons, Robertson also played a huge part in Hong Kong's silver medal successes at the 2010 Asian Games and the 2009 East Asian Games.
"[Potentially missing the World Cup] has been the biggest headache that I had to think about," he added. "This is a pretty big year with Moscow coming up. It was a hard decision to take, but I was lucky enough to play in the last World Cup [in Dubai in 2009] and it was a great experience.
"It was too difficult for me to turn down an opportunity like this and mess around with [Cathay's] system, which is generally quite competitive. I have also picked up quite a few injuries recently and was likely to be out for a season, and with the squad pretty strong at the moment, I doubt I would have been called up."
Former sevens captain Jeff Wong and exciting newcomer Eni Gesinde are part of an 18-strong squad which is training presently. It will be cut to 12 for the first tournament in the HSBC Asian Sevens Series at the end of this month in Kota Kinabalu. This tournament plus next month's Shanghai Sevens and October's Mumbai Sevens will decide the seedings for the Asian qualifiers in Singapore.
Hong Kong's aim will be to finish in the top two, which could see them in the opposite half of the draw to Asian champions Japan at the qualifiers. The top three in Singapore qualify for the World Cup.
"But we cannot discount any of the other teams," Rees said. "China and South Korea are going to be very competitive, as well as the likes of the Philippines and Taiwan. But we believe our experience and the continuity in players will enable us to finish in the top two."
Meanwhile, Argentina's much-anticipated debut as host of a leg in the HSBC Sevens World Series has been scrapped due to "logistical problems". The 2012-13 series will now again comprise nine tournaments, of which the Cathay Pacific HSBC Hong Kong Sevens is the sixth leg, from March 22-24.