Welcome to the Asian sevens merry-go-round, where Hong Kong and Japan are destined to exist in a vortex until the end of time
Paul John’s new-look side prove they don’t need a rebuild, but moving on to bigger and better things still seems unlikely
You can just picture a bewildered Paul John slipping further and further into a state of delirium as one after another of his star players shuffle nervously into his office and tell him they are off to (potentially) greener pastures.
Maybe that’s a stretch, but there’s no doubt the straight-shooting Welshman has had plenty on his plate since arriving in Hong Kong to replace Gareth Baber in March.
First there was the unenviable task of steering Hong Kong through a World Series qualifier – one that came with high expectations – only weeks into his new job.
Since then, former captain Max Woodward, stalwarts Alex and Tom McQueen, dynamic winger Ryan Meacheam and up and coming scrum half Cado Lee Ka-to have left Hong Kong.
Some may yet be back for next year’s Hong Kong Sevens, but there must have been times when John’s head was spinning at the thought of meeting increasing expectation with half the cattle.
The good news for John is Hong Kong’s effort in finishing second behind only Japan in the first round of the Asia Rugby Sevens Series on the weekend has allayed any fears that his side would need an extended period of rebuilding.
A lot of credit must go to John. The former Wales coach has proven himself to be the perfect man for the job and an astute tactician in his short time in Hong Kong. But the question must be asked – what does it all amount to?
Hong Kong have soaked up the loss of a swag of players brilliantly, but they’re still where they were before – second in Asia behind Japan and likely still not good enough to squeeze onto the World Series.
There is the hope that with so much youth in the side – five of the weekend’s squad were aged 23 or younger – Hong Kong can go beyond the level that has seen them repeatedly fall short in the World Series qualifier.
The fact John will have had a full year to mould his side come April will also make a difference, but the reality is there is always going to be a cap on where this team can get to and all the optimism in the world isn’t going to change that.
More Japan heartbreak for Hong Kong in Asian Series but Paul John’s side ‘on track’ for World Cup berth
Maybe Hong Kong will win their way onto a World Series in the next few years, but what then? Likely they’d only last a year, like the recently relegated Japan who have been up and down like a yo-yo over the years.
With the 2019 15s World Cup taking place in Japan and the Top League still taking precedence for a lot of players, that doesn’t look like changing for the Brave Blossoms any time soon.
It makes one wonder if the two side’s are destined to ride the Asian sevens merry-go-round until the end of time, each year hoping for a different result but knowing deep down it’s unlikely to happen.
While Japan are well ahead of Hong Kong and even made it to the semi-finals in Rio last year, coach Damian Karauna admits sevens is set to live in the shadows of 15s at least until 2019, hinting that strong Olympic performances are perhaps more achievable that a sustained run on the World Series.
“We have got a lot of things to work on to get our programme running professionally,” Karauna said after his side’s win over Hong Kong on Saturday.
“We haven’t got enough [players], we need another 10, 20 boys pressuring these guys before we can really start putting a programme together. We know that after 2019, there may be an influx.”
And so it goes on. While Japan continue their on-off relationship with the World Series, only getting full access to the best players once every four years, Hong Kong will continue to plod along behind, winning the Asian series when Japan’s best are off frying bigger fish and settling for second when Asia is again their priority.
Coach Damian Karauna keen to make friends with Top League clubs as sevens takes a back seat after the Olympics
If John’s men can maintain their second spot in this year’s Asian series and qualify for next year’s Rugby World Cup Sevens, a trip to San Francisco will provide a welcome detour for Hong Kong, but outside of that it’s hard to see them swapping the merry-go-round for something a bit more exhilarating any time soon.