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Hong Kong have worked hard for their spot, but the World Cup qualification process seems a bit off

Jo Hull’s side could not have done any more than what they have to earn their spot in Ireland, but the absence of some key sides certainly helped

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 December, 2016, 7:02pm
UPDATED : Friday, 16 December, 2016, 7:02pm

The thought of Hong Kong heading off to next year’s Women’s Rugby World Cup in Ireland is no doubt still taking some time to sink in for all involved.

The enormity of the achievement is hard to comprehend and if you’d said as recently as 12 months ago that this would be happening, you’d likely have been laughed at.

There’s been talk that Hong Kong have been handed a World Cup berth after beating only Fiji, but of course it’s nowhere near as simple as that.

Jo Hull’s side have worked hard for their spot and could not have done any more than they have.

At the end of the day, as the saying goes, you can only beat what’s in front of you.

“We saw an opportunity 18 months ago when World Rugby announced the qualification process for the World Cup in 2017,” HKRU general manager of rugby performance Dai Rees said after Tuesday’s match between Fiji and Japan.

“We wanted to make sure we made the most of the opportunity that was presented to us. Did we think at the time we would make 2017? We knew we had a shot at it based on the politics of world rugby.”

Rees mentions politics and regardless of which way you look at it, the fact Hong Kong are in the World Cup highlights issues with the state of women’s 15s and the current qualifying process.

First and foremost, the reality is it is the absence of Kazakhstan that has opened the door for Jo Hull’s side.

After missing the Asia Rugby Championship earlier this year due to administration issues, Kazakhstan took themselves out of the running for a spot at the World Cup.

Kazakhstan are the highest ranked team in Asia at number 16 - one spot above Japan and seven ahead of 23rd-ranked Hong Kong – and they have been a regular at the World Cup for decades.

With Kazakhstan out of the picture, it threw the second Asia/Oceania qualifying spot wide open, a spot that in the past didn’t even exist.

The 2017 World Cup is the first time there has been two spots allocated to the Asia/Oceania region outside of the two automatic Oceania spots that Australia and New Zealand have had a mortgage on for years.

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Only when South Africa announced they would not be interested in trying to qualify for 2017 did World Rugby take the Africa spot and turn it and the existing Asia spot into two spots for Asia/Oceania.

At the time, there were expectations that there would be a quality Oceania side pushing hard for one of those spots.

11th-ranked Samoa would have been expected to be in the mix, but they were denied entry to Oceania qualifying because they did not have a local women’s competition.

To put the eventual qualifying process in to perspective once the above sides were out of the picture, Fiji finished one spot off making a World Cup despite not having played a test for the 10 years prior to this year.

Adding to that, the Papua New Guinea side who Fiji beat in the Oceania Rugby Women’s Championship to qualify for the Hong Kong series had never previously played a test.

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Correct me if I’m wrong, but a team playing in their first ever test should not be anywhere near qualifying for the sport’s showpiece event.

It suggests women’s 15s is not as healthy as it could be, but on a positive note the game here in Hong Kong is thriving and now has the opportunity to move forward while so many others are receding.

At a time when many teams are unable for various reasons to get themselves in a position to qualify, good on Hong Kong for being as professional and organised as they are.

While it is hard to see Hong Kong having any sort of impact in 2017, they can lay some serious foundations for World Cup campaigns to come.

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The first game of the tournament will only be Hong Kong’s fourth against a team from outside Asia after two against Spain late last year and last week’s against Fiji.

For this reason and plenty of others, the experience will be invaluable and the exposure Jo Hull’s side gains in Ireland will put them in a position to target the next World Cup with genuine purpose.