Hong Kong earns key role in Sevens World Series
Hong Kong's dream of becoming a bigger part of the HSBC Sevens World Series came closer to fruition yesterday after the International Rugby Board increased the number of core teams from 12 to 15 next year with the additional three to be decided at next month's Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens.
For the first time in the history of the Hong Kong Sevens, the tournament will be split into two competitions, one for the 12 core teams in the series - the likes of New Zealand, Fiji and England - and the other for the remaining 12 teams, where the top three will qualify for the 2013 world series.
The new format is designed to give countries more opportunities as sevens prepares to make its debut at the 2016 Rio de Janiero Olympics.
'As we build towards Rio 2016 and our Olympic Games debut it is important that opportunities exist for all nations to progress to series core-team status if they are good enough,' IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset said.
'The new system provides every nation competing in their regional qualifying tournaments with a direct opportunity to gain core-team status and compete in every round of the world series.
'Hong Kong is an iconic event and unique in its 24-team status. We are delighted it will also host the direct qualifying event to compete on the entire Sevens World Series.'
Hong Kong Rugby Football Union chairman Trevor Gregory hailed the IRB's move and its decision to have the qualifying tournament in Hong Kong (March 23-25).
'It is a great initiative. While everybody wants to play against the big teams, it is a bigger carrot to play at the top table. The three teams who qualify will be playing against the big teams almost every month next year,' Gregory said.
'The opportunity for Hong Kong to host the qualification tournament for core-team status is a direct and positive reflection on the history, internationalism and scale of the Hong Kong Sevens and continues to reinforce the prestige of our world-famous event.'
The existing 12 core teams in the world series will compete together, with all points earned going towards the 2011-12 standings. Those teams are Argentina, Australia, England, Fiji, France, Kenya, New Zealand, Samoa, Scotland, South Africa, US and Wales. They will all retain their core status for next season.
The remaining 12 nonworld-series teams invited to participate in Hong Kong will compete in a direct qualifying competition. They are Canada, China, Guyana, Hong Kong, Japan, Philippines, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Tonga, Uruguay and Zimbabwe. The top three will become core teams in the 2012-13 season.
The 12 teams in each competition will be split into three pools of four. The top two from each pool plus the best two third-place finishers will qualify for the quarter-finals in each competition.
The new system provides every nation competing in regional qualifiers with a direct opportunity to gain core-team status and compete in every round of the world series.
There will be a promotion-and-relegation system every year, starting in 2013. The bottom three teams among the 15 core teams will be relegated and will have to rejoin the qualifying process.
'We hope that the qualifying event will be held in Hong Kong every year,' Gregory said. Hong Kong is the only 24-team tournament in the series with others 16-team events.
With the qualifying process for the Olympics still undecided - only 12 teams will participate - the IRB has gone ahead with expanding the core teams as it is believed that some of the berths for Rio de Janeiro will be filled by them.
'I believe there will be three ways you can qualify for the Olympics,' Gregory said. 'The first is through the world series; the second is regionally with Asia assured of one place; and the third way being through some sort of a repechage.
'To make it fair to all, the IRB has increased the number of teams in the world series to 15 and every region has the chance to be represented.'
The Hong Kong Sevens previously carried extra points but has now fallen in line with the other legs. But it will still retain its importance with the IRB using it as the qualifying tournament.
'It's a very exciting progression for our tournament,' Gregory said. 'This will not only eliminate one-sided games early on, but the Sunday of the tournament is going to be a thriller with so much at stake.'
The IRB will also sanction the Hong Kong Women's Rugby Sevens, and the teams will play for the IRB Women's Seven Challenge Cup. The semi-finals, final and plate final will be played at Hong Kong Stadium.
The pools and full schedule will be revealed at the tournament draw in eight days.