Hong Kong Sevens expanded to 28 teams
March tournament will continue to feature two distinct competitions, but with extra berths made available for sides to reach core-team status
The world's most popular sevens tournament has become even bigger with next year's Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens expanded to a record 28 teams in a move to smooth a new qualifying pathway for the world series.
The Hong Kong leg of the HSBC Sevens World Series, from March 22-24, will serve as a pre-qualifying competition before a final core-team qualifier in London at the ninth and final leg, which will decide the three new core teams for the 2013-14 season.
"What the IRB has done is acknowledge Asia's premier position in sevens by allowing us to play an instrumental role in the development of the world series," Hong Kong Rugby Football Union chairman Trevor Gregory said.
"The top three teams from the HSBC Asian Sevens Series will not only have the opportunity to compete in Hong Kong but also have the chance to compete for core-team berths in London."
The increase from 24 to 28 teams means the Hong Kong Sevens will continue to feature two distinct tournaments. The main event will include the 15 core teams, who play in every leg of this season's world series, plus the winners of this year's Asian Sevens Series (to be decided after next month's Mumbai Sevens). They will all compete for the Cup competition.
The remaining 12 teams - two qualifiers from each of six regional tournaments - will compete for four places at the core-team qualifying final, which this time will be played alongside the London Sevens.
Spain, Portugal and Canada emerged as core teams for this season from the inaugural qualifiers held in March in Hong Kong.
"Like what happened this time at the Hong Kong Sevens, our event will be split into two competitions. The top one for the 15 core teams plus the winners of the Asian Sevens Series, who will also be guaranteed a spot at the London Sevens, plus the qualifying competition of 12 teams to decide another four teams, basically the semi-finalists, who will go to London for the core-team qualifying final," Gregory said.
The London Sevens will also be expanded, from 16 to 20 teams this year, split into a 12-string core-team event and another eight-team qualifier to decide the three new core teams for the next season. The eight teams will comprise five from Hong Kong - the winners of the Asian Sevens Series, plus the top four from the qualifying competition - as well as the three core teams who are at the bottom of the standings after the Glasgow Sevens, the eighth leg of the world series.
Hong Kong will get two bites at the cherry - playing at the season-ending London Sevens. The first is by winning the Asian Sevens Series, or by finishing in the top four in the qualifying competition in Hong Kong. "What it also means is an early start on Friday at the Hong Kong Sevens as we will have four more teams than usual," Gregory said.
IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset said: "We are confident this new system provides every nation competing in their regional qualifying competition with a direct chance to gain core-team status and compete in every round of the world series."
Gregory added: "The opportunity for Hong Kong to host the pre-qualification tournament for core-team status is a direct and positive reflection on the internationalism and scale of the Hong Kong Sevens and continues to reinforce the prestige of our world-famous event."