Where to now for Hong Kong’s women after middle-of-the-road effort in Asian sevens series?
Anna Richards’ side finished third behind Japan and China and seem to be falling further adrift of their regional rivals
While Hong Kong’s men have a clear path ahead with the upcoming world series qualifiers and are riding high after victory in the Asia Rugby Sevens Series, things are a little less certain for the women.
Anna Richards’ side finished the Asia rugby Women's Sevens Series (ARWSS) in third place behind Japan and China, which on the surface looks like a reasonable result.
But after tying for points in second with Japan in 2014 and finishing equal first with both Japan and China last year before having to settle for third on overall points, the reality is Hong Kong have gone backwards.
Perhaps the most damning statistic is the fact that Hong Kong didn’t come close to Japan this year, losing 28-0, 24-12 and 14-0, and only beat China once (19-12), in Sri Lanka, when they fielded a new-look side after losing 19-7 and 40-5 earlier in the series.
Last year, on their way to taking out the opening round of the series in China, Hong Kong beat the home side 19-10 in pool play, Japan 5-0 in the semi-finals and then China again in the final (26-15).
It seems as though Hong Kong’s two main rivals have forged ahead, while Richards’ charges have remained flat-footed.
There where positives earlier in the year with a solid performance in the Hong Kong Women’s Rugby Sevens sparking hope the team was on the rise.
However, that campaign ended in a second successive semi-final exit from that tournament and was followed by the disappointment of missing the finals of the Olympic repechage.
The Olympic effort – against some seriously good sides – can be forgiven, but going backwards in Asia is something Hong Kong certainly cannot afford.
The most alarming thing about their ARWSS tilt was the way it ended, with Hong Kong falling 19-5 to Thailand in the third-place play-off in Sri Lanka last weekend.
This meant Hong Kong finished only one point above Thailand in the ARWSS and agonisingly close to falling outside of the top three.
The positive is that a top-three finish is enough to retain the same level of funding at the Hong Kong Sports Institute for the next 12 months, with the ARWSS the main performance marker for 2016.
However, anything less would have brought the funding dedicated to each individual player into question and potentially jeopardised their ability to stay on as full-time athletes.
Richards remained calm after the Sri Lanka tournament and maintained the last game was a blip on what she thought was an otherwise solid performance overall.
“I’m happy pretty much overall with this tournament apart from the last game, I thought we let ourselves down a little bit,” she said.
“Honestly, we were aiming to try and make top two in the series and we wanted to take a step up from last year.”
HKRU general manager of performance rugby Dai Rees admitted that the women’s side had plateaued somewhat in 2016, but was positive about what lies ahead and the plans the HKRU has in place.
He is confident the HKRU can drive progress through improvement to the current squad, dedicated talent identification and through specific junior programmes that will ensure young players are ready for the step up to senior rugby.
“We need to continue to identify young talent to come into the programme and we are looking to squeeze another 20 per cent out of the current players,” he said.
“There is an acceptance we plateaued, although we saw some improvement throughout the series. We are in the process of reviewing to see what we can do better to close the gap on China and Japan on a consistent basis.
“The way we are doing that is through Jo Hull, our relatively new national performance manager, and reviewing the current structures within the SI.
“We are seeing if we can improve areas within the current group of girls. There was progress through this cycle, probably our best performance was our loss to Japan [in Sri Lanka]. The girls improved over the three legs.”
The main positive to take from what Richards and Rees have to say is that the people involved in the women’s sevens side are still confident in the way the group is heading and they still see success as an expectation.
That being said, the time has come to find another gear for this team or they risk slipping further behind, with any resultant cuts to funding having the potential to render the progress made over the past few years almost irrelevant.