Rugby squads will hold bittersweet memories of missing out on glory

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 November, 2010, 12:00am

The abiding memory of these Games will be the sight of the Hong Kong women's rugby team crying their hearts out after being 'robbed' of a bronze medal by mainland referee Liu Hao.

The day after China's sporting icon, Liu Xiang, won gold in the men's 110-metres hurdles, a headline in a local newspaper screamed 'Liu-king Good'. In the case of the Hong Kong women's team, it should have read 'Liu-king Bad'.

It was a terrible decision by the referee to wrest the ball away from Hong Kong's Lai Pou-fan, who was about to convert the try scored by Samantha Scott which levelled the scores at 12-12 against Thailand.

The conversion in front of the post was a formality and it would have given Hong Kong the bronze medal. But instead, the referee decided the 40 seconds permitted to take the conversion had passed and broke Hong Kong hearts.

That Thailand scored the winning try in sudden death came as no surprise. Hong Kong were still trying to come to terms with the unprecedented ruling. It is something I have never witnessed in a lifetime of watching rugby, and especially at such a crunch time.

Hong Kong captain Royce Chan Leong-sze said: 'We were robbed.' She was a 100 per cent right. The heavy handed interpretation of the rule denied a once-in-a-lifetime chance of winning an Asian Games medal for many of the players.

One conspiracy theory is that referee Liu was not acting on his own. The video of the bizarre incident shows Liu apparently listening to someone on his earpiece before taking the overbearing decision. Maybe Liu, and perhaps others, acted according to the letter of the law, but certainly not in the spirit of it.

Hong Kong Rugby Football Union's performance director and head coach Dai Rees is convinced Liu was wrong. 'I have watched the video footage and there is no doubt the referee is to blame,' Rees said.

The HKRFU is now considering asking for a full investigation of the incident. As far as closure is concerned, Thailand won the bronze medal. But at least poor Lai should know she is not to be held responsible for squandering the opportunity to win a team medal.

What a great double that would have been for rugby with the men and women both accomplishing what had never been done since the Hong Kong Olympic Committee was established in 1951 - winning a team sports medal at the Asian Games.

'The girls should not feel responsible for the inability to convert that final try,' Rees said. 'They should be very proud of what they achieved.'

By beating Japan to win a berth in the third-place play-off was a huge achievement. The determined mood in the camp was perhaps captured by the sight of Scott booting the ball into the crowd after scoring that try which levelled the scores.

On any other occasion, she might have been reprimanded by the referee. But with the hooter having gone, she got off scot-free, so to speak. This once again highlighted the absurdity of Liu's decision. Lai wasn't wasting time by bouncing the ball on the floor. She was waiting for some Thai players to get out of the way.

If the final hooter had not gone, there could be some justification for the referee to do what he did. Then he could have a solid case for time wasting. But with the game having ended, it was an obvious case of Lai waiting for the opposition players to move aside.

Explaining the referee's decision afterwards, Hong Kong official Toby Lothian, who was the touch judge in that match, said: 'The try scorer (Scott) kicked the ball away when she scored. The 40 seconds started ticking from then. The ref ruled they had taken too much time.'

Rees said the referee should have stopped the clock until the Thai players had cleared the area. 'I think he lost control of the situation.'

That incident took the focus away from the men failing to deliver gold. Winning a silver medal - the first ever team medal for Hong Kong in Asian Games history - is still a feat. But in the end it was a pyrrhic victory.

Japan, the bogey team on many occasions, once again denied Hong Kong their sweet moment of glory with a 28-21 victory in the gold medal match. Mark Wright and his players should accept the responsibility that they failed, simply because Japan were down to six men for the last five minutes of the match.

Losing a player in sevens is like playing with one arm tied behind your back.

'It was a combination of two things which lost us the gold medal,' Rees said. 'One, we made two crucial errors. And two, Japan benefited from two poor decisions which led to tries.'

In the end, it was Hong Kong's inability to contest the breakdown which cost the men a historic gold. Japan's bigger forwards outpowered Hong Kong in the rucks to turn over crucial possession.

A silver medal is still an accomplishment. Hong Kong rugby will continue to be supported by the Sports Institute under its elite training grant. It's just that a gold medal would have been so much better. Now rugby has a four-year wait.