IRB to decide fate of 1997 Hong Kong Sevens
AN International Rugby Football Board decision on dates for the 1997 World Cup Sevens will decide the fate of the annual Hong Kong Sevens tournament for that year.
Unless the IRB accepts the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union's recommendation to stage the World Cup in October a 21-year unbroken string of Hong Kong Sevens tournaments will come to an end.
In applying to stage the World Cup, the HKRFU nominated dates in March and October - hoping always that the October date would eventuate allowing the Hong Kong Sevens to become a qualifying tournament for the later event.
Hong Kong, who were awarded the World Cup Sevens last year, have made it clear to rugby union's governing body that they would prefer to hold the tournament in October after the territory has been handed over to China.
Stuart Leckie, chairman of the HKRFU, is in favour of the autumn dates.
''Our preference is to hold the World Sevens in October. In that way the Hong Kong Sevens can go on, although it will then be a qualifying tournament for maybe the Asia-Pacific region,'' said Leckie.
Two dates in 1997 had been originally pencilled in, March and October, on either side of the date the British territory reverts back to Chinese rule - June 30, 1997.
If the tournament is played in March, there will be no Hong Kong Sevens at all, as the World Cup Sevens will replace it.
But if it is October, the HKRFU have suggested that the Hong Kong Sevens, which by then would be in its 22nd year, be used as a qualifying event.
The scales tilt heavily in favour of October. There will be tremendous world interest in Hong Kong after the handover, the weather is usually kind and the Hong Kong Sevens can continue.
IRB heavyweights Keith Rowlands and Marcel Martin will arrive in the territory in May to look at the ''pros and the cons'' of both dates. And Hong Kong rugby officials hope that by the end of the visit, they will have done enough to convince Rowlands andMartin that October would be ideal.
''The IRB first thought that the World Sevens would just replace the Hong Kong Sevens. We will have to show them the advantages of a later date,'' said Leckie.
One of those advantages is the backing of the two main sponsors of the Hong Kong Sevens - Cathay Pacific and Hongkong Bank - who have indicated that they would be keen to back the World Cup Sevens.
In addition the publicity that would be generated by having the first major international sporting event in Hong Kong after the handover would be a tremendous boost to rugby in the territory.
In the end, however, the decision might be out of the hands of the IRB and the local Union, depending on the vagaries of world television rights.
The HKRFU can only hope the October dates do not clash with previously scheduled IRB fixtures, nor with other major world sporting events.
Meanwhile, a director of Rugby World Cup Ltd, Dr Nick Labuschagne, told the SCMP a decision on the dates would be taken by June.
''We will inform the local Union by June this year,'' said Dr Labuschagne, who is the HKRFU's guest of honour this weekend.