Sevens debut a national farce
Both the men's and women's rugby finals in Shenyang should become case studies in how not to introduce fans to a new sport
Sadly in rugby sevens, the referee can turn out to be the most important person on the field, as proven in the gold-medal match at the National Games on Tuesday.
Hong Kong were up against Shandong and leading 12-0 with one minute to go until half-time when things began to quickly unravel. Former captain Simon Leung Ho-yam picked up a yellow card for a marginal high tackle and was asked to take a two-minute break in the sin-bin.
Soon after the break, winger Salom Yiu Kam-shing was put in the clear by skipper Rowan Varty and had an easy run for the try-line. But the Argentine referee blew and awarded a penalty to Shandong in open play, leaving the Hong Kong players bemused. Later, they felt the penalty was given for obstruction - Varty who was late-tackled after passing the ball being the victim for apparently obstructing the tackler.
With a penalty count that ended 24-2 against Hong Kong, it was inevitable the final result read 14-12 to Shandong. Eight of these penalties came in the last two minutes. Shandong's winning try was a travesty itself, with a player knocking on at the base of a ruck. He picked up and drove over to score. The referee did not see the knock-on.
Hong Kong's dominant scrum was the focus of the referee's ire. He penalised Hong Kong for pushing the opponents off the ball, for crooked feeds etc. With all these hurdles, it was a wonder the result was so close. Conceding penalties in sevens is a no-no, being subjected to 24 is tantamount to suicide.
It is like asking the players to turn up blindfolded. Sadly in this case, it was the referee who was myopic. He seemed to be playing to the gallery - a large partisan gathering - and did a stellar job.
Winning the gold medal brings huge prestige and with rugby sevens now in the Olympics, the pressure was clearly on the mainland teams to bring home the gold.
Shandong had beaten Hong Kong earlier in the pool stage, 17-14, but Hong Kong picked up their game on the second day to defeat pre-tournament favourites Beijing 26-12 to advance to the final. It was a surprise that Shandong didn't run away with the match, especially when they were gifted the ball 24 times.
Not wishing to ruffle feathers and considering the political aspect of taking part in the National Games, Hong Kong head coach Dai Rees was circumspect in his post-match comments. He said: "The lads are supremely disappointed, more so in the way we lost than anything."
Varty and his men had every right to feel disappointed. A gold medal was there for the taking. The squad was virtually the same one whichwon the Asian sevens title last year, and that by pipping Japan to the silverware.
If the men's final was ridiculous, the women's final descended into farce when the Beijing team refused to play the final half against Shandong, apparently incensed with refereeing decisions that had reduced their team to five players. The Beijing women just stood and watched Shandong rack up the points.
For a sport trying to make a mark on the mainland, the final stages of the National Games were a complete disaster. It was the worst advertisement for rugby. The game is still finding its feet on the mainland. The fans still don't know the ins and outs of the game and to watch two gold-medal matches of such debatable standards is not the right message the game's authorities would have liked to send out.
But it seems the results were popular, especially Hong Kong being relegated to the silver medal. Apparently Varty and his men had felt they did not belong at the Games. These vibes not only came from the rest of the provinces, but from within the rest of the Hong Kong sporting community.
Rugby sevens has risen far and fast. It is the newest sport in the Hong Kong Sports Institute, one which is bringing in results - the boys won the gold medal at the Asian Youth Games. When you fly too close to the sun, you are bound to face problems. Jealousy is one of them.