Hong Kong Sevens regains status as only qualification tournament for world series
March event will be only qualification tournament for aspiring nations to join HSBC world series after criticism of set-up last season
The Hong Kong Sevens will once again be the main focus globally after the International Rugby Board made next March's showpiece the one-and-only qualification tournament for aspiring nations to become part of the HSBC Sevens World Series.
The jewel-in-the-crown status of the Hong Kong Sevens was slightly tarnished last season when the IRB plumped for a complicated qualifying process with the local tournament being a pre-qualifying event, with the last leg of the World Series in London being the final qualifiers.
But in a turnaround, the IRB has decided the Hong Kong Sevens, a 28-team event again, will be the qualifying tournament with 12 teams fighting for one berth in the 2014-15 series and not three as in previous years, it is believed.
Hong Kong Rugby Football Union chairman Trevor Gregory said the new promotion/relegation format had yet to be confirmed but "in this way, we are assured of a new team on the circuit next season".
Downplaying the fact that only one team would be promoted, Gregory said: "The good thing is we would be assured of a new face in the world series with the relegated team not having the chance to win back promotion as was the case last season. And I believe Hong Kong has a great chance of winning the qualifying competition in front of their home fans.
"Just imagine the final of the qualifying tournament, and how high the stakes will be. It will be the most important match of the tournament and it would be great if both Asian teams are vying for that one berth as that would mean Asia would have a representative. We are the only continent not to have a team in the world series yet."
The International Rugby Board will likely rubber-stamp the new system at a meeting on October 8.
Last season's format had been criticised as three teams were "relegated" at the end of the penultimate leg in Scotland, but Portugal, Spain and Scotland got the chance to win back their spots by playing in the qualifying leg the next week in London alongside five other qualifiers unearthed at the Hong Kong Sevens.
The trio won back their berths, sparking criticism the qualifiers were not a level playing field as the teams had benefited from playing one season in the world series, while the aspiring nations, including Hong Kong, had not had much exposure.
England's new sevens coach, Simon Amor, said a balance needed to be struck between giving countries the opportunity to join the world series - it has 15 core teams - while safeguarding developing countries.
"It is important to grow the global game and the way to do that is to get new teams in [the world series]," Amor said. "But while opportunities are important, the challenge will be for national bodies to support programmes, even if their team is relegated. Unions need to have a long-term vision and cannot demand immediate success."
The top two teams from each of the six IRB regions will qualify for the 12-team qualifying tournament in Hong Kong. The 15 core teams, plus one other decided by the IRB, will figure in the main Cup championship.
"It would be nice if two teams were promoted - the finalists in the qualifying event at the Hong Kong Sevens - and two teams were relegated. But aspiring nations didn't make a strong case at the London Sevens last season as they all failed to qualify with the three teams who were relegated winning back their slots," Gregory said. "The IRB is worried too many new teams might reduce the competitiveness of the world series. It will take time to evolve."