Hong Kong face Argentina in Sevens World Cup
Coach Rees says defeat of Argentina in Hong Kong means the South Americans know they will have to be at their best in World Cup opener
Any slight advantage Hong Kong might have had over Argentina, their first-up opponents when the Rugby World Cup Sevens gets under way today, has been blown away by the shock victory over the South American champions three months ago at the Hong Kong Sevens.
This will raise the stakes even higher for Hong Kong as they chase a win at the Luzhniki Stadium, the venue of the boycott-marred 1980 Olympics.
The history of those Games will accompany Rowan Varty and his men as they run on to the pitch bidding to create another upset. But it won't be easy, with head coach Dai Rees saying Argentina's radar would be on full alert.
"We raised too much awareness of how good we are when we beat them 7-5 in Hong Kong," Rees said. "But it is nice starting against a team we know we can beat."
Similar to the Hong Kong Sevens, the three-day World Cup will see teams playing only one game on the opening day with the remaining two pool games to be completed tomorrow.
Sunday is knockout day and Hong Kong will be hoping that by then they will have done enough to put them in a good position to finish as the highest-ranked Asian team in the tournament, ahead of Japan and the Philippines.
While Hong Kong have a proud record of having made it to every World Cup (this is their sixth appearance), the final outcome has been less than pleasing. The best result was in 1997 when they reached the Plate final before losing to Tonga to finish 10th out of the 24 teams. Four years ago in Dubai, Hong Kong finished 19th, losing to Ireland in the Bowl semi-finals.
The onus is on Varty and company, who this season have reached highs admirable for a team of amateurs. Their wins over Argentina and United States at the Hong Kong Sevens and over Scotland at the London Sevens attest to their quality.
But winning silverware is all about stringing a number of results together and that is something which this team have not been able to do. Against Spain, at the London Sevens, they struggled for possession and lost the chance of becoming a core team on the World Series.
"We are targeting at least one win over the first two days but if it doesn't come then it is about performance on Sunday," Rees said. "Our goal is to reach a final."
The return of Hong Kong's sevens player of the season, flyhalf Jamie Hood, will hopefully be a boost for the team and Rees is expecting a big performance from the South Island School teacher. The vital playmaker Hood missed the London Sevens due to injury.
"Jamie has been a huge player for us this season. He has won two man-of-the-tournament awards in the Asian series.
"This is a big tournament for him as it is for Ben Rimene, our most improved player of the season," Rees said.
Rimene is set to take the lead role at scrumhalf after Cado Lee Ka-to pulled out through injury. But for both Rimene and Hood to be destructive, a lot will depend on the ball-winning capacity of the forwards. Nick Hewson and Kwok Ka-chun are the likely starters against Argentina.
"We will need aggressive ball-winners. Against Spain [at the London Sevens], it was mistakes which cost us," Rees said.
"We made three mistakes in the first half and Spain scored three tries and we were down 21-0. We have to cut down our mistakes and this has been our focus in our build-up."