Fiji and New Zealand arrivals offset Argentina pullout

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 March, 2003, 12:00am

Argentina have joined France and Italy as victims of the pneumonia outbreak and pulled out of the 2003 Credit Suisse First Boston Hong Kong Sevens. But organisers were breathing a huge sigh of relief after top teams Fiji and New Zealand arrived late last night for the tournament which starts on Friday.

The International Rugby Board had found replacements for France and Italy - Namibia and Tonga - who withdrew last week. But the decision by last year's Cup quarter-finalists Argentina to cop out on Sunday night has created another vacancy.

'We are waiting for the IRB to find another replacement. We can't go with a 23-team tournament. But the good news is that all the other teams are confirmed and have either arrived or are on their way,' said Allan Payne, Hong Kong Rugby Football Union, executive director.

Hong Kong has been the centre of a global outbreak of a virulent form of pneumonia. Ten people have died and more than 260 people, including Hospital Authority chief Dr William Ho, have been struck down by pneumonia.

Meanwhile the Cable and Wireless Women's Rugby Sevens also suffered a pull-out with Japan withdrawing from the 14-team tournament which begins on Thursday at So Kon Po. Organisers are likely to replace Japan with an Asian Barbarians team.

The other international event, the DHL 10s, will go ahead without any hitches. All 24 teams have confirmed their participation for the two-day event which begins tomorrow at the Hong Kong Football Club. 'We have not had any problems like the other events. All the overseas teams have confirmed their participation,' said Hong Kong Tens spokesman Chris Helm.

Defending Hong Kong Sevens champions England are expected to turn up today as are other top sevens contenders Australia, South Africa and Samoa. Along with New Zealand and Fiji, these four are the top six seeds at the 2003 Hong Kong Sevens and head each of the six pools.

The withdrawal of Argentina and France, both of whom are high-up on the IRB Sevens standings, has raised the question whether the draw for the 24-team tournament needs to be re-done.

'We are looking at it carefully and a decision will be taken soon. As this is an IRB Sevens tournament, the draw is important to the top sides like New Zealand, Fiji and England,' said Payne.

Argentina and France are joint-seventh in the IRB Sevens with 20 points each. Replacements Namibia and Tonga both have two points, but as there are no other teams above them in the IRB Sevens standings who are already not playing here, it is most likely that they will slot in for Argentina and France.

'We will make a final decision once we speak to the IRB Sevens' tournament manager Mark Egan who is due in tomorrow,' said Payne yesterday.

Cook Islands, the first team to arrive for this weekend's rugby extravaganza brushed aside any fears of the mystery pneumonia virus affecting them. 'We are extremely grateful to the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union for inviting us here. We have liaised with New Zealand authorities who have said it was safe.

'We are looking forward to taking this opportunity to show everyone what we are capable of,' said Cook Islands coach Damian Beddoes. 'We are also not worried if the draw is redone. No matter who the opposition is, we will be giving it our best shot,' said Beddoes. Cook Islands were drawn with Samoa, drop-outs France and Taiwan in Pool F.

This is the first time the Cook Islands will be playing at the Hong Kong Sevens. They appeared here in 1997, at the Rugby World Cup Sevens.

Namibia, another team who only turned up at the 1997 World Cup tournament, are in fine form currently.

They have already played in the Dubai and South Africa legs of the IRB Sevens and have scored wins over sides like France and Wales.

Tonga are no strangers to Hong Kong. Their take-no-prisoners style of physical rugby is loved by the fans.

Having just booked their berth for October's 15-a-side World Cup in Australia, the Tongans will be looking to celebrate with another power-packed performance at the Hong Kong Stadium.

Until the issue of whether a re-draw was needed or not, it is not known where Namibia and Tonga would by pooled.