IRB's relegation system for sevens world series is a joke
Convoluted scheme to decide core-team status in world series means demotion for some sides could last for just a week
One thing is for certain after this week's announcement by the International Rugby Board - don't ask the world governing body to organise a booze-up in a brewery. After months trying to figure out the best way to work its promotion-relegation format for the HSBC Sevens World Series, the IRB unveiled a convoluted and confusing master plan that fails to serve the best interests of the smaller rugby nations. And this should be the main criterion. The IRB has increased the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens from 24 to 28 teams and the ninth and last leg of the world series in London from 16 to 20 teams. Why? To accommodate a promotion-relegation format.
Next year's Hong Kong showpiece will once again be split into two tournaments. The 15 core teams who play in every leg of the series plus the winners of this season's Asian Sevens Series will contest the top-tier competition, while the remaining 12 teams, comprising two of the best from each of the six regional tournaments (like the Asian series) will play in a pre-qualifying event for core-team status.
The final qualifiers will be in London, where the four semi-finalists from Hong Kong's second-tier competition, plus the winners of the Asian series, will join the three bottom-placed teams from the world series to decide which three teams will be promoted.
Therein lies the major flaw in the IRB's convoluted thinking. A promotion-relegation system works mainly on the basis that teams relegated don't get a second life. But this is not the case. Say, for example, Spain, Canada and Portugal - the three teams who won core-team status from this year's Hong Kong Sevens - find themselves at the bottom of the standings after the Scotland Sevens. They will get another bite at the cherry in the qualifying competition.
Is this right? Shouldn't they miss out, giving three other nations the chance to rub shoulders with the big boys and thus expanding the number of countries who experience playing in the entire series? Is this not the whole purpose of the IRB, to widen the circle of countries dining at the top table?
"We are confident this new system provides every nation competing in their regional qualifying tournament with a direct chance to gain core-team status and compete in every round of the world series," IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset said.
But here's the rub: The three teams relegated will be hardened professionals having benefited from playing the entire season and will start with an immediate advantage over the others.
The three bottom-placed teams could find themselves promoted after just a week of being relegated. What a joke. This is just perpetuating a cycle, instead of truly giving other teams an honest chance of joining the world series for 2013-14.
This leads to the other major issue - the IRB gradually chipping away at the prestige of the Hong Kong Sevens. Despite my initial misgivings - splitting the tournament into two, which resulted in 12 teams having no chance of playing for the Cup - I concurred that the Hong Kong Sevens last March was a superb tournament.
There was an extra edge because there was so much riding on it for those teams aspiring to become a core team. But next year, the tournament will be downgraded as it becomes a pre-qualifier for the final qualifiers in London.
This year, Hong Kong were in the running for a core-team berth, next year we might not get the opportunity if we fail to make it through the pre-qualifiers or fail to win the Asian series. The only silver lining to the whole shambles is the IRB has recognised the importance of the Asian series by granting the winners a direct berth to the London qualifiers.
So the best thing for Hong Kong is to win the series, which today sees the second leg - the Shanghai Sevens - reach its climax. If Rowan Varty and his team can do that - they are ranked second behind Japan in the three legs of the series which count towards deciding the champions (the fourth leg in Singapore will serve as a World Cup Sevens Asian qualifier) - that cuts out the risk of failing to come through from the expanded Hong Kong Sevens next March.