A gift that can keep on giving
Now that rugby sevens is in the Sports Institute, players and administrators must make the most of this opportunity
It has been a momentous week for rugby in Hong Kong, especially the abbreviated version of the game. Rowan Varty might have brought distinction on himself and the local game by being chosen to represent the Barbarians against the British and Irish Lions, but the more significant achievement was the decision by the Sports Commission to open the door for sevens at the Hong Kong Sports Institute. Everyone knew rugby sevens would join the Fo Tan academy after the men's senior and junior teams achieved the nine-point qualification target, with the silver medal at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games going a long way towards putting in place the building blocks for the successful application.
Yet, a huge sigh of relief was heard down the corridors of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union when the decision was made on Monday. By becoming the only team sport among the 16 elite disciplines at the institute, rugby sevens will hold a special place. It has been nearly two decades since a team sport was last seen at the institute - soccer can only faintly remember the good old days under coach Kwok Ka-ming, the time when Hong Kong had the audacity to go to Beijing and knock China out of the World Cup qualifying competition (in 1985). Let's hope rugby can provide moments as memorable.
Rugby's timing could not have been better. With sevens now part of the Olympics, the pathway into the institute was made easier. A couple of months ago, the rules were changed, with a three-tier structure replacing the old system that categorised all sports under one blanket. While the generic scoring system remains the same, the Elite Vote Support System (EVSS) has been split into three levels - Tier A*, Tier A and Tier B. The reason behind these changes is simple. In future, only sports which offer medals at the Olympics or Asian Games will be considered for inclusion provided they meet the benchmark. These will be categorised under Tier A* or Tier A. Sports that are non-Games disciplines and achieve a score of between 6.5 and nine, can also get support, but much-reduced under Tier B.
With this three-tier system, the Sports Institute has sent a clear message - Hong Kong wants medals at the highest level. This is the bottom line and rugby sevens will have to be mindful of this. For the next four years, millions of dollars will be pumped into the sevens programme. In return, the institute will expect sevens to either qualify for an Olympics - in this time frame it will be the Rio Games in 2016 - or win medals at the Asian Games or world championships. The latter is equivalent to the World Cup Sevens in Moscow in June. Hong Kong have qualified, but it is highly unlikely they can finish in the top three. Next year's Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, is a better bet. At the past two editions - the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou and the 2009 East Asian Games in Hong Kong - the city's team won silver medals, pipped on both occasions by Japan.
Apart from winning a medal at the Asian Games next year, Hong Kong are also in with a big chance of qualifying for Rio and ticking off the EVSS requirement for the next four-year cycle, 2017-21. This process will take place in 2015, by which time the benefits of the SI support system will be felt.
Another key will be if Hong Kong are successful in becoming a core team in the IRB Sevens World Series. If Varty and his side succeed in finishing in the top three in the eight-team qualifiers at the London Sevens in a fortnight, Hong Kong will become the first Asian team to play full time on the world circuit. Apart from being another feather in the cap - earlier last week they were also invited by the IRB to play in the World Games in Cali, Colombia in August - playing nine tournaments against the best in the world will raise standards.
Entry into the Sports Institute will also turn Hong Kong's sevens players into full-time professionals. In the past, only the approach has been professional, but now they can live up to the word in all its manifestations. This will hopefully have a ripple effect on the 15s game, which can now use the resources that were previously allocated for sevens.
And the best thing about all this is the women's sevens programme is eligible for support, too. In Guangzhou, the Hong Kong women came close to winning a bronze medal. With a dedicated system in place that takes care of every need, more young athletes of both sexes are bound to be attracted to sevens. Entry into the Sports Institute will be a game-changing catalyst.