Top sides look set for HK
NEW Zealand, Fiji and Western Samoa, who between them have won the past seven Hong Kong Sevens tournaments, have been kept apart in the qualifying events leading up to the 1997 Rugby World Cup Sevens.
Rugby World Cup (RWC) yesterday released the draw for the three tournaments from which 21 out of 64 teams will qualify for the 1997 World Cup at the Hong Kong Stadium.
It was feared that a qualifying series would jeopardise the chances of all major sevens nations playing in the territory.
But RWC has ensured that the territory can confidently expect all the top teams to qualify for the tournament.
However, Gordon Tietjens, coach of defending Hong Kong Sevens champions New Zealand, questioned the need for teams like New Zealand to qualify.
New Zealand must undertake the long journey to Lisbon, Portugal, in June next year for what appears to be a formality. Eight countries out of 24 qualify from the Lisbon event.
Ireland, Spain, South Korea, Canada and Namibia are among the countries taking part in Lisbon.
'We have won the Hong Kong Sevens for the past two years so I'm very surprised that New Zealand have to qualify,' he said from New Zealand yesterday. 'It's a long way to go just to take part in a qualifying event.
'I would have thought the top teams like New Zealand, Fiji, Western Samoa and South Africa would automatically qualify.
'I think it would be better to grade teams depending on their performances at the Hong Kong Sevens, but the problem with that is many of the countries taking part in the qualifiers would not be competing in Hong Kong. But it is something that has to be done and I'm sure we will have our best team at the competition.' Only hosts Hong Kong, defending world champions England and Australia receive automatic places in the 1997 World Cup. England and Australia contested the final of the 1993 tournament in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Fiji, South Africa, Tonga, Wales, Scotland, United States, Taiwan and the Arabian Gulf are the teams expected to advance from the 24-team Dubai qualifier in November next year.
The final qualifying event will be held in Punta Del Este, Uruguay, in January 1997 where 16 teams, including Western Samoa, Argentina, Japan and France, will be battling it out for five World Cup places.
The most intriguing aspect of the draw is the fact that France may be forced to play Tahiti in the Uruguay tournament.
Anti-nuclear activists in Tahiti have demonstrated against French nuclear testing in the Pacific.
In a statement issued yesterday by the International Rugby Football Board (IRFB), RWC director Keith Rowlands said: 'Each of the tournaments is in itself a mini RWC which will test to the full both the ability of the teams involved as well as the local organisers.
'Ultimately, this is one of the roles of the RWC, to offer all nations in the IRFB membership a chance to express their aspirations at top international level.
'In order to facilitate the presence of all IRFB countries irrespective of their strength and financial means, all participants will be transported and accommodated for the three qualifying rounds at the expense of the tournaments.' Tietjens, meanwhile, reiterated that star winger Jonah Lomu, along with veteran skipper Eric Rush and Dallas Seymour, would be available both for next year's Hong Kong Sevens and the Lisbon qualifiers.
World Cup qualifying draw Lisbon, Portugal (June 1996) - Eight of 24 teams qualify for Hong Kong 1997: Ireland, New Zealand, Spain, South Korea, Canada, Namibia, Romania, Latvia, Portugal, Poland, Georgia, Ukraine, Israel, Belgium, Moldova, Norway, Hungary, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Switzerland, Austria, Andorra, Luxembourg.
Dubai, UAE (November 1996) - Eight of 24 teams qualify for Hong Kong 1007: Fiji, South Africa, Tonga, Wales, Scotland, United States, Italy, Taiwan, Arabian Gulf, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Czech Republic, Denmark, Russia, Malaysia, Botswana, Singapore, Zambia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Yugoslavia.
Punta Del Este, Uruguay (January 1997) - Five of 16 teams qualify for Hong Kong 1997: Western Samoa, Argentina, Japan, France, The Netherlands, Uruguay, Cook Islands, Germany, Bahamas, Bermuda, Chile, Paraguay, Sweden, Tahiti, Papua New Guinea, Trinidad and Tobago.