Sealed with a hiss as hosts get dream draw for Hong Kong Sevens
Snake-themed presentation sees Dai Rees' team land decent opportunity to impress against the core teams at Hong Kong Sevens next month
Snakes alive! By the luck of the draw, Hong Kong slithered their way into what looks the easiest pool for the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens next month when they were drawn with two teams - Canada and Spain - who qualified to become core teams last year at Hong Kong Stadium.
"We get a great opportunity to see how these two sides have improved over the season and it will lay down a marker for us," national sevens coach Dai Rees said, as Hong Kong look ambitiously towards becoming a core team next season. The other team in Hong Kong's pool are defending champions Fiji.
Hong Kong will rub shoulders with the 15 core teams at the sixth leg of the HSBC Sevens World Series from March 22-24. They have been invited to do so by the International Rugby Board, not because they are the hosts, but because they wear the mantle of Asian sevens champions.
The heavily weighted snake theme at last night's draw which underscored the new lunar year, saw organisers place toy snakes with the countries' tags on them in a snake charmers' basket to be drawn by the VIPs. And the biggest cheer of the night came when Hong Kong were the remaining snake in the basket to complete pool D.
"We were all relieved as we didn't want to be in pool A, which looks to be the toughest. But having said that there are no easy games because all these teams have been playing regularly on the circuit and this will be our first outing [against the big guns]," said Hong Kong forward Anthony Haynes.
South Africa - the winners in Las Vegas - Wales, Argentina and Australia will battle it out in the preliminary round in pool A. New Zealand, the reigning world series champions, will head pool B, which includes United States, France and Kenya, while pool C comprises Samoa, Scotland, England and Portugal.
For the first time, the Hong Kong Sevens will host 28 teams, with the other 12 sides playing in a pre-qualifying tournament to decide four teams who will play in the final qualifiers - the last and ninth leg in London in May - to unearth the three core teams for next season. Hong Kong have gained automatic entry into the eight-team London qualifiers, which will be completed by the three bottom-placed teams in the series after the eighth leg in Scotland.
"However we look at the Hong Kong Sevens, it still has to be part of our preparations for London. But our goal will be to try and win some games, hopefully on the first day," Rees said. "But wherever we end up on Sunday, we will still come up against some top sides because this is a phenomenal series now."
Haynes added: "While London will be crucial to our hopes of entering as a core team in the world series next season, we will not be approaching our own event as a warm-up. This is in our own backyard and in front of our own fans and we will be going all out to do well."
Hong Kong will begin their build-up with a visit to Zimbabwe early next month where they will come up against teams like Kenya and top South African provincial sides.
Not surprisingly, Fiji are the highest-ranked opponent in Hong Kong's pool, placed fourth, while Canada are 10th and Spain tied 14th and currently in the relegation zone with Portugal and the United States.
The extra four teams this year will result in more matches with tournament operations director Rod Mason and his team having to cope with time demands placed by the IRB. "We will have 70 matches which is nine more than last year. It will be non-stop entertainment," Mason said.
And it won't get any better than American rock band of the 1960s, the Beach Boys, who will be Surfin' So Kon Po on the Sunday of the Sevens.