Hong Kong desperate to prove core strengths in London
After a series of successful 'firsts' the team hope to join the top table of sevens sides by qualifying this weekend in rain-soaked London
Hong Kong finish one journey and hope to start an even more exciting one by becoming a big player on the world sevens scene this weekend.
"It has been quite a journey. We have come to the end, but it will also be a new beginning if we do manage to qualify and become a core team," said Hong Kong coach Dai Rees.
"We have achieved a great deal of 'firsts' in the past few years and months. We won medals at the Asian Games for the first time, we became Asian champions for the first time, we are playing at the London Sevens for the first time, and we became the first team sport at the Sports Institute in a very long time. But this is another challenge.
"Should we become a core team, it presents us with even bigger headaches and challenges. But it is exciting times," Rees said.
Forwards Nick Hewson, Eni Gesinde, Kwok Ka-chun, Ant Haynes, Lee Jones and backs Rowan Varty, Ben Rimene, Cado Lee Ka-to, Salom Yiu Kam-shing, and the McQueen brothers, Alex and Tom, have all travelled an eventful journey together and their tight bonds have turned them into genuine contenders for core-team status.
But it could well be the man who wasn't part of this adventure - Keith Robertson - who could play the vital role and spark the team to success. Just over a year ago, Robertson was red-carded in a crucial match against Japan leading to Hong Kong letting slip a golden opportunity to become a core team.
It was perhaps fitting that when Hong Kong took some time to switch off from the task at hand, and on the eve of their great trek to "journey's end", they chose to visit the London Eye. It was a vivid reminder of how far this team of weekend warriors had travelled before finally arriving - in the eye of the storm.
The storm clouds will gather at Twickenham this weekend - maybe just more than metaphorically as the forecast is for rain - with their professional opponents in the eight-team qualifying tournament baying for success.
"We are hungry," said Portugal coach Frederico Sousa. "We want to get back among the core teams as it is important to us, especially looking ahead to the Olympics."
Portugal are one of three teams who have played all season with the big boys - the others being Scotland and Spain - and they feel this will give them a slight advantage.
"Probably we will have a bit more experience than teams like Hong Kong, but we can take nothing for granted and it will be a tough competition because everyone wants what we want," Sousa said.
Tonga, who head the other crop of aspirants Russia, Zimbabwe and Georgia (they qualified from the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens, while Hong Kong gained automatic entry by virtue of being Asian champions), are desperate to secure a place at the top table .
"It will be a huge boost for us. We will be able to raise more sponsorship and becoming a core team will raise interest in the game. But it is going to be hard for everyone will be fighting for this same thing and every team will be a danger," Tongan coach Tevita Tuitua said.
The organisers might have afforded step-motherly treatment to the qualifying tournament by playing the majority of the pool games at an outside pitch, but it is this tournament which has meaning. The same cannot be said of the 12-team top tier tournament as New Zealand have already sealed the HSBC Sevens World Series title again.
Moving the Goalposts
The goalposts have been moved at the last minute with Hong Kong and the rest of the seven teams in the qualifying competition being told that the quarter-final round tomorrow could see them face teams from their same pool again.
"We were all under the impression it would be a crossover format where number one in pool A would meet the bottom-placed team in pool B and so on. But at the managers' meeting we were told otherwise," said Hong Kong coach Dai Rees.
Instead, the preliminary pool competition today will be used to rank teams from one to eight, with the quarter-finals match-ups being 1 v 8, 2 v 7, 3 v 6 and 4 v 5.
"We originally thought we wouldn't meet Scotland in the quarter-finals as they were in our pool. But now we could still end up playing them," Rees said.
"We hope we can avoid meeting any of the teams who have been on the circuit [Scotland, Spain and Portugal] as they will be more experienced. "The aim is to go out and win as many games on the first day and try to be ranked as high as possible and hoping the likes of Scotland and Portugal are ranked high so we avoid meeting them," Rees said.