Coach Dai aiming high
Head coach Dai Rees believes Hong Kong can achieve their goal of joining the elite in the world series after naming his squad for the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens.
Rowan Varty will take on the captaincy armband for the first time at next weekend's showpiece event at Hong Kong Stadium as the hosts chase one of three prized core-team berths up for grabs.
'At the moment this is the strongest 12 we have,' Rees said. 'I have picked a team and combinations which can get us into the top three in the qualifying tournament. We can achieve our goal.'
Varty, 25, led the side in the Asian Sevens Series last season and will be at the helm of a team which are unrecognisable from that which turned out last year at Hong Kong Stadium. Seven changes have been made, including first-time Hong Kong Sevens caps for forwards Ross Armour and Lee Jones, and centre Ally Maclay.
'One year is a long time in this game and I have picked this side purely on merit, based on performances in six tournaments since the Hong Kong Sevens last year,' Rees said. 'Picking the final 12 has probably been the toughest call I have had to make in my coaching career.'
Hong Kong finished second behind Japan in the Asian Sevens Series last season.
Jones and Armour play in the backline in 15s but will double up as specialist forwards - hooker and prop respectively - next weekend. Their presence forces former captain Simon Leung Ho-yam and Tsang Hing-hung out of the team. Another regular, scrumhalf Fan Shun-kei, also misses out. All three, however, are in the squad to go to Japan for the Tokyo leg of the series the week after.
'Simon, Hing-hung and Shun-kei have all been unlucky to miss out on selection,' Rees said. 'Simon has a new family and has not been able to devote as much time to training, but he will be going to Japan. Likewise, the other two players.'
Tsang, a policeman, has been training with a special unit and has not been able to devote as much time to training, while Fan might consider himself unlucky with Alex McQueen and Tim Alexander taking on the halfback duties.
'We also needed extra cover in the number 10 [flyhalf] position and Alex offers us this luxury. But the good thing is that I now have depth, making the selection process tough,' Rees said.
The McQueen brothers - the other being Tom - are not the only ones returning to the Hong Kong Sevens after a break. Influential forward Mark Goosen is also back for the first time in three years.
Goosen has been training as a pilot and had missed out on previous occasions. His presence will be welcomed, especially as there are only two other specialist sevens forwards in the squad with experience of playing in front of 40,000 fans - Kwok Ka-chun and Anthony Haynes.
Apart from Varty, the other players with long-time Hong Kong Sevens experience are dynamic playmaker Keith Robertson and winger Salom Yiu Kam-shing.
'It is a great honour to be named as captain, especially in a year when the stakes are so high,' Varty said. 'In the past to play in front of your family and friends was huge, but this time we have a bigger target to achieve and I believe this team, the strongest I have played with, can do it.'
Hong Kong will face a tough test in the preliminary round of qualifiers, having been drawn with Tonga, Uruguay and China. Tonga have played in a couple of tournaments already this year and were impressive in Wellington, where they defeated Fiji to reach the Cup quarter-finals.
Uruguay last week won the CONUSR South American sevens championship after pulling off a stunning upset over Argentina. China are pouring more resources into the sevens game and could be an even bigger threat than last year when they defeated Hong Kong in the Shield quarter-finals to end a poor tournament for the hosts.
But as Rees pointed out, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since and the class of 2012 is a totally different combination.
'Personal circumstances have meant a few players were not available for selection, but as our playing base gets bigger, the challenge to pick the team also grows,' Rees said. 'We are as good as anyone else in the qualifying group. We have prepared well but will need a little luck along the way to secure a top-three spot.'
The 12 teams in the qualifying tier have been split into three pools of four. Hong Kong's first goal will be to finish in the top two in their pool, or be one of the two best third-placed teams to secure a place in the knockout stages.
They will have to reach the final, or at least win the third-place play-off to realise the goal of becoming a series core team next season.
Rowan Varty (captain), Kwok Ka-chun, Mark Goosen, Ross Armour, Anthony Haynes, Lee Jones, Alex McQueen, Tim Alexander, Ally Maclay, Keith Robertson, Tom McQueen, Salom Yiu Kam-shing.