Big year of sevens ahead, but is a World Series berth the only way Hong Kong can show progress?
After making the final of the qualifying competition and winning the Asian sevens series in 2016, there is little room for improvement results-wise
This year shapes as a massive one for the Hong Kong men’s sevens team and, with plenty happening both on and off the pitch, they have every right to be excited.
They’ll have a new coach soon, they’re off to Fiji next week to mix it with the very best in the world and they will have their best chance yet of making it on to the World Series.
But after an impressive 2016 that saw Hong Kong lose to Japan in the final of the World Series qualifier and win the Asia Rugby Sevens Series, the room for improvement will be relatively slim.
Of course there is plenty of ground to be made up on main Asian rivals Japan and a quarter-final exit from the Olympic repechage was not ideal.
But as far as actual results go, the pressure is on in 2017 and a berth on the World Series is really the only way Hong Kong can physically show they have improved.
Of course the coaching staff will tell you there is plenty of scope for improvement regardless of whether Hong Kong take the next step in April’s qualifier, and there is.
But one look at the field in that tournament and – with Japan and Russia both already on the World Series – now would seem as good a time as ever for Hong Kong.
Spain stands as Hong Kong’s main rival, who they beat 19-0 in the Olympic repechage in Monaco in June.
Worryingly, Spain managed to bounce back from that loss and win the tournament and earn an Olympic berth.
“All the teams that are in it we have beaten in the qualifiers or in Olympic qualification over the last couple of years,” HKRU general manager of rugby performance Dai Rees said.
“Our nemesis Japan are not in it and we have just got to make sure we place ourselves in a position to win it and that is why we have invested in the trip to Fiji.”
The trip to Fiji will see Hong Kong engage with the Olympic champions in an intense training sessions that will involve a number of mini-matches, something that will no doubt help Hong Kong’s cause.
The HKRU are on the front foot and say they have learned from past mistakes in a bid to ensure the three-month build-up to the Hong Kong Sevens is flawless.
There will also be a stop at the Borneo Sevens in March, while the union is hoping to have Gareth Baber’s full-time replacement announced by the end of January.
This should give interim coach Jevon Groves plenty of time to hand over the reins without unsettling the side at a crucial point of their preparation.
But while everything is in place to ensure Hong Kong are as well positioned as humanly possible, the reality is a World Series spot is still going to be very tough to obtain.
And even if they do manage to make it through the qualifier, the level of improvement they will need to find to compete with the best in the world is something that simply cannot happen in the six months they will have to do it.
Teams like Japan and Spain have earned core-team status only to see it be very short-lived and there is still the issue of a lack of continuous competition for the teams outside of the World Series.
There has again been talk in recent months of creating a second-tier to the World Series, ensuring there is something to fall back on for the relegated team and giving the promoted team the best preparation possible.
While it hasn’t been confirmed by World Rugby whether the concept is any closer to becoming a reality, it is something that would no doubt help Hong Kong whether they were on their way up or on their way down.
“It’s something that Hong Kong would hugely support,” Rees said.
“Rather than just a one-off qualification in Hong Kong each year, if they had a four-leg series or similar it would be sustainable.
“If you are on the series for one year, you have 10 tournaments and then all of a sudden you’re out and there is no drop off down to four or six tournaments. It’s boom, gone.”