Hong Kong should push for a role in IRB Women's Sevens Series

HK has been a pioneer in promoting women's rugby; now the city must try to bag a leg of the world sevens series

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 December, 2012, 3:03am

Let's face it. If not for women, rugby would never have got into the Olympics. That is a fact, given that any new sport wishing to make its presence felt on the world's biggest stage must include women in these days of equality. Rugby's failed attempt to get into the 2012 Olympics was due to the sport not having enough countries where women played the game when the bid was made in 2005. Having learned that lesson, the International Rugby Board, by 2009, had pushed the boundaries and encouraged its members to develop the women's game.

That has now paid off. When the vote was taken again in Copenhagen, in 2009, the IRB could boast that more women were playing the game across the world and, with the International Olympic Committee keen to get one of the most popular TV sports - in terms of worldwide reach resulting in massive broadcasting rights - on board, it was a done deal and sevens will now make its debut at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

It is less than four years away and the IRB has continued its push to develop the women's game, resulting in the inaugural IRB Women's Sevens Series, a four-leg event, with the first played in Dubai last weekend.

One day before the United Arab Emirates celebrated its 41st birthday, a slick outfit from New Zealand crushed South Africa 41-0 in the Cup final to clinch the first tournament in the new series. With Houston (United States), Guangzhou (China) and Amsterdam (Netherlands) coming up, it is hard to see past the women in black matching the deeds of their male counterparts, who have been crowned 10 out of 13 times in the men's series.

The men's competition spans nine tournaments - it would have been 10 this season if not for Argentina crying off at the last minute - and despite some convoluted decisions taken by the IRB (how to run its promotion-relegation system) it has flourished largely due to the support from its corporate partner, HSBC. Which begs the question: wouldn't it be great if the bank got involved with the women's circuit, too? Yes, in these times of belt-tightening by corporate sponsors of sporting events - just look at golf, the other new Olympic sport, which is finding it hard to attract the corporate dollar - every move would have to be carefully scrutinised and evaluated, but it would make perfect sense as the women's series would dovetail perfectly with the men's.

And this leads to the other key issue: marrying the men's and women's events together as happened in Dubai. While there is merit in newer destinations, as that would spread the message far and wide, it would also make sense - and cut costs - if both the men's and women's series are run side-by-side. Unfortunately, according to the IRB, few cities can cater for such a possibility. Dubai is one, Hong Kong is not.

In Hong Kong, players cool down in garbage bins filled with ice. In Dubai, they have the option of dipping into a swimming pool at the state-of-the-art Sevens Stadium, which was purpose-built for the staging of the 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens.

In Dubai, the women had their own changing rooms. They also had their own warm-up pitch and training facilities. All reasons why Hong Kong's bid to host a leg of the women's series met with failure.

But Hong Kong must not be disheartened. Its women's sevens tournament has been a proud precursor of providing opportunities for the women's game and has helped raise the profile of the sport in Asia and, indeed, internationally. IRB Sevens manager Beth Coalter has revealed there are plans to expand the women's series to perhaps six legs.

While the Hong Kong Sevens will have to deal with increased men's teams next year - a record 28 - and with all the other social rugby events, from the Hong Kong Football Club Tens to the Kowloon 10s, there should be a way of finding room to include 12 women's teams in the mix and providing them with the same facilities that the men enjoy.

Perhaps in a couple of years, the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union can look at using the facilities at the South China Athletic Association across the road from Hong Kong Stadium. Work on that facility is going ahead and the SCAA now has its own rugby club.

Just because the IRB turned Hong Kong down once doesn't mean the city should give up hope. Hong Kong has carried the torch for women's sevens for a long time and it is a shame now that a proper world series is in place, that we have no role in it.