A valuable lesson out of Africa
HK sevens team got a harsh dose of reality in Harare last week, but it is from setbacks like this that real progress can be made
There is this hunch gnawing at the back of my mind that Hong Kong coach Dai Rees opted for the long haul to Harare last weekend to take part in Zimbabwe's international rugby sevens tournament so as to temper the growing expectations that the city's team will be playing in the HSBC Sevens World Series next season.
Such talk is premature as proven by the results that came out of Africa - Hong Kong losing to a second-string Kenyan outfit on day one followed by a thrashing at the hands of the home team in the Cup quarter-finals. The crushing 35-7 loss has well and truly deflated any belief that all the Asian sevens champions had to do was to show up at the London Sevens in May and grab one of three core spots available for the world series.
I suspect Rees knew that Rowan Varty and his men would not be geared for sevens rugby as yet - they were still in 15s mode with the season just having ended days before the team departed for Harare - and that the trip would serve its purpose: a perfect "wake-up call". There is nothing like travelling thousands of kilometres to learn such a harsh lesson. The 24-hour trip back home would have been spent by the players reflecting on this lesson.
If this was what Rees had in mind, then well done to him. In the bigger picture, it will also open the eyes of all to the many obstacles Hong Kong face as they bid for a place at the top table, which if successful could change the very fabric of the game locally.
First, the calibre of the opposition must be taken into account. On paper, it looks as if the four teams who look favourites to qualify from the Hong Kong Sevens pre-qualifying tournament next weekend will be Tonga, Japan, Russia and Zimbabwe. They will join the three teams at the bottom of this season's world series standings, plus Hong Kong - who have automatically qualified for the London Sevens by virtue of being Asian champions - in the eight-team competition in London to decide the three new core teams for next season.
Right now, we have the likes of Portugal, Spain and the United States propping up the series' standings. The teams demoted will be highly competitive, having gone through an entire season of playing with the big boys. So looking at the opposition Hong Kong are likely to face in London, it will not be an easy task. The visit to Harare has just magnified that mission.
Another factor will be injuries, which is part of the game. Even top world coaches like Gordon Tietjens and Ben Ryan have admitted that injuries can change the dynamics of a team. England struggled with the unavailability of key players at the start of the season and it showed as they failed to reach the Cup quarter-finals in the opening three legs. New Zealand are now struggling with injuries. A number of their top players including Tomasi Cama, DJ Forbes, Toby Arnold, Solomon King and Kurt Baker have all been injured. Luckily for Tietjens, he has built enough depth to find cover with the Sevens All Blacks still ruling the roost.
Last season, Rees was fortunate that Hong Kong went through unscathed on the injury-front as we won the HSBC Asian Sevens Series as well as qualified for the World Cup in Moscow. But what happens if key personnel get hurt before London? Hong Kong do not have the depth of New Zealand.
So it is wise to take a prudent approach, one which the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union has adopted, as it faces a game-changing scenario - having to contract players to play full-time if London is a watershed.
Top union officials Brian Stevenson and Trevor Gregory have stated their unstinting support for the sevens squad if they qualify for core-team status. What form that support will take can be dealt with later. But for now, everyone involved has taken the wise wait-and-see approach. Last year, Hong Kong came close to qualifying for the world series. If not for the red card handed out to Keith Robertson, early in the game against Japan, Hong Kong would have waltzed their way into the company of the elite.
But probably it was for the best. Twelve months ago, Hong Kong weren't ready to make the transition to professionalism. It is not the case now, with rugby sevens on the verge of entering the Sports Institute as an elite sport.
Now all that is needed is for Hong Kong learn from their Harare slip-up.