IRB raises stakes in core-team qualifying race
On the eve of the host’s pool games, game’s governing body says second-tier winner can join big boys for final 2013-14 legs in Scotland, England
The stakes in the qualifying race for core-team status were raised on the eve of the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens with the International Rugby Board announcing the winner of the 12-team second-tier tournament can join the big boys for the last two legs in Scotland and England.
"We will not invite a 16th team to play in the last two legs this season, instead the winner of the Hong Kong qualifying tournament will take part alongside the other 15 core teams," said Beth Coalter, IRB Sevens operations manager.
"We want to fast-track the qualifier."
This will present Hong Kong with a serious headache if they qualify as a core team on the World Series.
The Scotland leg on May 3-4 in Glasgow and the England leg in London on May 10-11 coincide with crucial World Cup qualifying fixtures in the Asian Five Nations Top Five competition for Hong Kong.
"It will be a nice headache to have if we win the tournament on Sunday. But we will cross that bridge if we get there," said Dai Rees, Hong Kong Rugby Football Union's head of technical development and performance.
Rees, however, confirmed the focus for Hong Kong, once this weekend's extravaganza is out of the way, will be on the 15s programme. Hong Kong has set its target on winning through to the repêchage in the 2015 World Cup qualifying campaign. This season's Asian Five Nations will double as the Asian qualifiers for the World Cup and Japan are strong favourites to win the direct berth to England.
"Qualifying for the 15-a-side World Cup will take precedence once the Sevens are out of the way. We have set our sights on our final game against Japan," Rees said.
Hong Kong meet the Philippines, Sri Lanka, South Korea and Japan in the A5N beginning in April. At least eight players in the sevens squad, including influential forwards Nick Hewson and Lee Jones, and backs Alex and Tom McQueen are key members of the 15s squad.
Hong Kong's first task, however, will be to win the qualifying tournament on Sunday. They will not have it easy with arch-rivals Japan warning they are keen to win the honour of becoming the first Asian team to play on the World Series.
"We are confident we can win the qualifiers and be the first Asian team in the World Series. This is crucial to our plans of qualifying for the 2016 Olympics, for we believe the experience of playing against the best will help our campaign," said Japan captain Katsuyuki Sakai.
Japan come in on the back of a good showing last weekend at their home event, the Tokyo Sevens, where they defeated Samoa 42-12 before going down narrowly, 24-19, to Wales in the Bowl semi-final. Many commentators felt Japan were unlucky not to make the Cup competition.
"We played really well in Tokyo and that performance has boosted our hopes. I don't think the short turnaround will affect us, in fact the experience of playing last week against the bigger teams will help us this weekend," Sakai said. "We are fielding our strongest side and we believe we can win to become a core team."
Apart from Japan, the other main challenges for Hong Kong in the 12-team qualifiers are expected to come from Russia and Zimbabwe with Italy, who is in Hong Kong's pool, also likely to pose an obstacle.
Hong Kong, led by Jamie Hood, will take on Tunisia and American Samoa in the first of their pool games on Friday and will meet Italy on Saturday in the last preliminary match. The first goal for the home team will be to try to top their pool which, if Japan also remains unbeaten, could see them meeting their rivals only in the final on Sunday.