Dawn breaking on a bright new era
Inclusion in the Sports Institute and the support that comes with it mean Hong Kong squads have a golden chance to reach new, loftier heights
A week from today, when all the excitement has died down, Hong Kong rugby will awake to a new dawn. Well, actually eight days from now, when the new funding cycle for the existing 15 elite disciplines at the Hong Kong Sports Institute kicks in. Make that 16, for sevens will soon be part of the cream at the top.
A whole new world awaits the only team sport in the programme. Rugby sevens will gain access to a wide range of support, including world-class coaching staff, state-of-the-art facilities (which have been redeveloped to the tune of HK$1.8 billion), local and overseas training, plus full technical, medical and psychological services. Athletes can also receive a maximum elite training grant of HK$32,000 monthly. The full monetary value of the programmes could well be in excess of HK$5 million a year.
Rowan Varty and his team will run out today for the last time as amateurs for very soon the sport will be in the professional ranks, not only in practice - which it has been for a number of years thanks to the commitment of everyone from players to coaching staff to administrators - but in name, too. So take a good look, this could be the last time you see an "amateur" Hong Kong team.
This watershed moment is set to change the entire fabric of the game. Now that sevens is in the Sports Institute, it could break open prejudices within the local community. Salom Yiu Kam-shing, the winger on the Hong Kong team, believes more Chinese parents will allow their children to play. Another, scrumhalf Cado Lee Ka-to, is hopeful this will mean another career path for local players.
Undoubtedly, the reputation of the sport, once regarded as solely a game played by "gweilos" or foreign devils, will receive a shot-in-the-arm. Over the past few years, sevens has gained growing recognition in the community largely due to the success of the men's squad at multi-sports games. Hong Kong were silver medallists at the last Asian Games (2010) and the East Asian Games (2009), the only team sport to win a medal.
Last season they were crowned Asian sevens champions for the first time and also qualified for the World Cup Sevens in Moscow, keeping a proud record of having played in every World Cup (they were automatic qualifiers in 1997 and 2005 when the event was held here) alive. All this led to the team winning the annual Hong Kong Sports Star awards for team of the year for the third consecutive year.
The timing of the entry into the Sports Institute couldn't have come at a better moment. With sevens becoming an Olympic medal sport at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, it gives sufficient time for the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union to prepare its qualifying campaign.
In 2015, the International Rugby Board is set to hold the regional qualifying tournaments for the Olympics. Asia will be given one place and Hong Kong has set its sights on grabbing that berth.
Olympic sports in the Sports Institute are a cut above the rest, but there will be a further division - A-star and A. The A-star sports, which will get additional resources, are those identified as having the potential to win a medal at the Olympics. The A sports are the rest, plus sports at the Asian Games. The A-star sports are badminton, cycling, table tennis and windsurfing. Rugby sevens will not fall into the category but it will be right up there. It has been a remarkable rise and, who knows, one day it could become an A-star sport, too.
With HK$237 million in its kitty, the union is the envy of other governing bodies. They might well ask why the government is supporting a sport which has more than enough resources. But should rugby be penalised for its success? Of course not.
The Sports Institute inclusion will give the union the leeway to address other areas of development with the men's and women's sevens squads at both senior and junior level taken care of.
When the elite programme is up and running, it is envisaged nearly 60 players will be involved with most of the full-time players likely to come from the junior levels. Skipper Varty, a solicitor, says he would think about putting his career on hold for a year if Hong Kong qualify to become a core team at the London Sevens in May.
The biggest attraction of turning full-time will be for those who don't hold a job or who are just finishing university - this will be the best age group, those in their early 20s, people like Lee who has Olympic-sized dreams. Making a commitment is still difficult but, with the resources now available, it becomes a nice problem to have.