HK qualify - without having to kick a ball
HONG Kong, who were forced to qualify for this year's inaugural Rugby World Cup Sevens, are one of only three teams given automatic entry into the 1997 event.
Hosts Hong Kong, reigning champions England and runners-up Australia have been given direct entry while seven-a-side specialists Fiji, current Hong Kong Sevens champions Western Samoa and powerhouses New Zealand, plus Wales, France, Ireland and Scotland, all must qualify.
Rugby World Cup Limited director Marcel Martin said the 58 other teams affiliated to the International Rugby Football Board would play in zonal qualifying matches for the remaining 21 places.
And he said such a zonal format could result in the possibility of top sevens nations like Fiji or Western Samoa qualifying for the finals at the expense of one another.
Said Martin: ''In 1997 only holders England, Australia and hosts Hong Kong will qualify directly.
''The 58 other teams affiliated to the IRFB will play for 21 spots.
''It is the reverse of the 1993 tournament when 20 teams qualified directly.
''Qualification will be on a zone basis which will mean you might not get the best 24 teams. Pacific countries like Fiji, Western Samoa and Tonga, who are all good at sevens, may end up playing each other - it is the same in other sports.'' Hong Kong were one of four teams who qualified for this year's inaugural World Cup Sevens in Edinburgh after reaching the semi-finals of the 1992 Sicily Sevens, which acted as a qualifying event.
The 20 automatic entries for Edinburgh were selected on the basis of their standings in 15-a-side. But organisers have realised that the world order in sevens is different to that of 15s.
Martin said the new qualifying format was part of his organisation's efforts to develop the game worldwide.
''We want to have the best teams in the tournament but there is also the need to develop the game,'' he said.
''We are trying to achieve a balance between the quality of the tournament and the development of the game.
''We are not there solely to make money. We want to ensure that the game spreads.
''It would be foolish, for instance, to match the Southern Hemisphere teams with the Americans in the qualifying rounds, then we would have no representation from America.'' He expected the qualifying tournaments to be played through 1995 and 1996 at venues yet to be decided.
Martin said Hong Kong, with its experience in organising the annual Hong Kong Sevens, was an ideal setting for the tournament.
''Hong Kong has a beautiful stadium and a special environment,'' said Martin.
''Rugby World Cup and Hong Kong organisers will work together to make sure the World Cup Sevens becomes the best tournament in the world.''