Rugby team confident they can deliver historic victory
Rowan Varty is champing at the bit. He cannot wait to take part in the 'most important tournament' of his career as he is convinced a gold medal awaits Hong Kong in Guangzhou.
'I have a good feeling about Guangzhou,' said Varty, a powerful winger and lynchpin of the 12-strong men's squad. 'This will easily be the most important tournament I have played in, for it is a potential turning point for rugby in Hong Kong.'
A gold medal victory by the men's rugby sevens team would be a momentous occasion - the first time a team sport would have lifted the plum prize at an Asian Games.
Last weekend's performance at the Borneo Sevens in Kota Kinabalu adds weight to the growing belief a gold medal is in sight. Hong Kong defeated Japan 31-28 in the Cup final in Borneo, the second leg of the Asian Sevens Series. It was an accomplished victory, and a comfortable one with the score line not really telling the story.
'We had the game in the bag and never felt as if we were going to lose,' Hong Kong head coach Dai Rees said. 'We led 31-14 with two minutes to go and Japan scored two late tries with the second after the hooter had gone.'
That victory ended more than two years of disappointment against Japan and will have heartened the team, especially as Japan were fielding a couple of Pacific Islanders who are not eligible to play at the Asian Games.
But nothing can be taken for granted as Hong Kong well know, having seen the gold medal at last December's East Asian Games slip their grasp when Japan scored in the last seconds of the final. 'We have learned our lessons at the East Asian Games,' Varty said. 'A medal is good, but what really matters is the gold medal, this is what people care about. Football is in the process of a revival which was ignited by the outstanding performance of the national team at the East Asian Games.
'We put in a great performance but we fell five seconds short of the gold, and unfortunately it is the gold in football and not the silver we won that will be remembered from that Games.'
Now Hong Kong rugby gets a second, and bigger, chance when the sevens competition takes place from November 21-23. Apart from Japan, the other major threats will come from South Korea and China.
But Rees is confident Hong Kong have got the measure of everyone after a sustained build-up over the past year culminating in the Singapore Cricket Club Sevens this weekend.
'Japan have been the only team we have struggled to beat over the past couple of years. But as far as the others go, China and Korea included, we have not lost to them for some time,' Rees said.
'What we are doing now is churning out consistent performances, tournament after tournament. In the past we would have one-off wins against the Koreas and the Chinas, but now we are beating them regularly. This is what I want to achieve against Japan.'
Unlike most of the Hong Kong sevens squad, who include a number of Chinese players - among them Kwok Ka-chun and Salom Yiu Kam-shing - Varty was born overseas, in London. The 24-year-old flyer was eligible to play at the last Asian Games in Doha in 2006 simply because his mother is Asian. 'I qualified for the last Asian Games because of Asian parentage. My mum was born here,' said Varty, who recently received a Hong Kong SAR passport, which now makes him eligible to play even in the Olympics.
Varty, along with skipper Mark Wright, plays corporate rugby in Japan, and he believes this stint there has been more than useful, not only in lifting his own standard of play but also in breaking down any belief the Japanese are superior.
'Our experience in Japan has benefited both Mark and I. Japan's top players play in the top league and it has given us a bit more perspective coming up against them weekly,' Varty said.
'I hope that will rub off on the rest of the Hong Kong players too, so we stop idolising them. And this victory in Kota Kinabalu will add to our confidence.
'With the level of play [in Japan] obviously being higher than in Hong Kong, I feel I have improved a lot. The main difference seems to be the basic skill level and lack of mistakes.
'Being a full-time player means the guys can work on their passing, kicking etc every day. And it shows, as I'm making fewer mistakes. We have had to catch up quite a bit and work hard, especially in our passing. The speed of the game is also much faster there.
'But that being said, even though we are not full-time players in Hong Kong, our approach at the top level is very professional.
'We are lucky in the way rugby is managed and run in Hong Kong. I would say things are even run more professionally in Hong Kong than in Japan,' he added.
Now all Hong Kong rugby needs is to win a gold medal in Guangzhou. 'I think if we accomplish that, the game will really take off in Hong Kong,' Varty said.