Hong Kong rugby sevens squad must nurture their self-belief
Senior sevens squad need to sharpen their mental strength against arch-rivals Japan if they are toprevail in the big games
Here we go again. This was the thought running through the mind of Brian Stevenson as he watched Hong Kong playing Japan in the semi-finals of the rugby sevens competition at the Asian Youth Games in Nanjing last month.
Stevenson, the president of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union, was on the edge of his seat as the boys' under-17 team grimly defended a 19-12 lead with two minutes left on the clock. His mind flitted back to the many occasions when the senior side had thrown away winning positions against Japan on the international stage.
For those who have a cursory interest in rugby, suffice to say that Japan and Hong Kong have a healthy rivalry on the sevens pitch. They would love to beat the hell out of each other, and neither would lose any sleep over it.
But for those bent on statistics, the head-to-head tally clearly favours Japan. And on most occasions, it seemed as if Hong Kong froze at the crucial moment, handing Japan the advantage. It happened at the East Asian Games in 2009, when 11,000 stunned fans at Hong Kong Stadium watched Japan snatch the gold medal with a 26-24 victory, the winning try coming five seconds from the end. They did it again at the 2010 Asian Games, Japan winning 28-21.
It happened at the Hong Kong Sevens, the most memorable being two editions ago when the home squad, vying for a place as a core team in the IRB World Series, were beaten in a crucial encounter after losing playmaker Keith Robertson to a red-card offence. Being reduced to six men has been Hong Kong's Achilles' heel many times against Japan, the most recent being in the Malaysia Sevens final this month where Japan snatched a 14-10 victory. With such memories, it was no wonder Stevenson was on edge. But in Nanjing the annihilation - of Hong Kong's self-belief - did not occur. The boys stood firm, coming back from a 12-0 deficit to take the lead and then hold on to it.
Hooker Hugo Chui Ho-ching summed up the passionate struggle. "Even though we were behind, we didn't give up. With the crowd's support, we fought until the end," he said. Hong Kong went on to win 19-12 and defeated Thailand in the final to win the Asian Youth Games gold medal. That gritty performance not only earned the youngsters top honours, but it also won the respect of the Hong Kong Olympic Committee, which now wants them to appear at the Youth Olympics next year - open to under-18 players - when rugby sevens debuts. There seems to be a perception among the rest of the local sporting community that rugby sevens is the brash new kid on the block. This was the feeling the senior squad perceived when they played at the China National Games. Players returned feeling they were not part of the local fabric, a mood heightened by losing to Shandong in the gold-medal final marked by poor refereeing decisions.
What the under-17 squad achieved in Nanjing will go a long way to building bridges with the rest of the sporting community. And the Hong Kong Olympic Committee's actions in pressing the International Rugby Board for their inclusion at next year's Youth Olympics will add weight.
Rugby is no longer regarded as a gweilo sport. The HKRFU has done yeoman service in making inroads in the community. Yesterday, it donated HK$13 million to local schools to help them build grounds so the sport can be played.
Of course, it wasn't altruistic as these schools will now be beholden to promote rugby. It once again shows how proactive the HKRFU is, as it aggressively promotes the game. Luckily, it has the means to do it - profits from the Hong Kong Sevens are ploughed back into the community. More facilities can translate into more goodwill and involvement.
With its elite status at the Sports Institute, the move to integrate will gain momentum. When the men's and women's sevens teams take part at next year's Asian Games, they will for the first time run out as part of the elite community from the Fo Tan academy. Perhaps the China National Games last month came too soon, just three months after rugby sevens' inclusion at the institute.
And maybe Stevenson's worries will be gone by then as the senior sevens team can perhaps learn a trick or two from sports psychologists on how to be mentally stronger next time they face Japan. Or they could take a leaf out of the under-17 squad's book on how to win big games.