Beijing pose serious threat for weakened Hong Kong in Games qualifier
Coach Rees cautious ahead of opening sevens match against team from capital territory
It was bucketing down in Shanghai yesterday but coach Dai Rees expects the heat to be on this weekend as Hong Kong were drawn in a tough pool with top seeds Beijing in the qualifying tournament for the China National Games this summer.
Eight provinces, the PLA and Hong Kong will battle it out for five berths available for the September Games in Shenyang, Liaoning province, when rugby sevens makes its debut. Only Olympic sports are featured at the National Games, which, next to the Olympics, is the most prestigious sporting competition on the mainland as it gives provinces bragging rights.
The nine mainland sides were initially drawn into three pools of three, and following that Hong Kong were pulled out of the hat to be placed in a pool. The Rowan Varty-led team were drawn with Beijing, Mongolia and Shandong for today's preliminary round-robin competition which will seed all teams for tomorrow's knockout round.
"We will have to hit the ground running with our opening game against Beijing who have won or finished in the top two in the provincial tournaments over the past three years," Rees said. "I expect the standards across the board to be high with all the provinces having invested a lot into their sevens programmes, including bringing in foreign coaches."
An indication of how seriously the provinces are taking this qualifying tournament was proven by the performance of the Chinese 15-a-side national team at the ongoing Asian Five Nations Division Three tournament in Kuala Lumpur. A weakened China, without their PLA players and top stars from the provinces, were hammered 78-0 by Qatar in their opening game and are in danger of being relegated to Division Four next season.
Beijing are coached by Johnny Zhang Zhiqiang, former captain of the China national sevens and 15s team, and are a potential banana skin for Hong Kong who will be without a number of key players, including forwards Nick Hewson and Eni Gesinde, and playmakers Jamie Hood and Ben Rimene, who are all ineligible because they don't have a permanent Hong Kong ID card.
"The first day will give us a good indication of how far provincial rugby [sevens] has progressed in China," Rees said. "But once again the key will be our first game on Sunday for if we win that we qualify.
"It will be a tough weekend but we are looking forward to taking on the best in China."