Hong Kong’s Asian sevens first-round success well-deserved but hollow after Japan field understrength side
As good as Hong Kong’s victory was in the first leg of the Asia Rugby Sevens Series on the weekend, there was one aspect that made the whole thing feel a little hollow.
Japan sent a team of university students and barely fired a shot across the tournament, something that is of no use to Hong Kong at this point of their development.
Yes, Hong Kong are now quite well placed to take out the series and secure the spot in both the Singapore Sevens and the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series qualifying competition that is awarded to the overall series winner.
This is of course positive as Gareth Baber seeks more consistent matches against top quality opposition, with a trip to Singapore guaranteeing exposure against the very best.
But the fact that Japan sent such a young team and looks set to continue with their development policy throughout the series certainly takes some shine off things.
Of course there is nothing Hong Kong can do about it and winning the series and collecting the spoils will be a great result.
But one can’t help but feel the chance to play regularly against a full-strength or close to full-strength Japan side would be more rewarding in the long run.
Playing in Singapore – if they are good enough to earn the right – will be a fantastic experience and the first time since Tokyo in April 2015 that Hong Kong have featured on the World Series.
However, at the moment they would likely gain more out of a series of competitive hit-outs against Japan rather than a number of blowouts against the best in the World Series.
Given, Japan were impressive at the Olympics, are a World Series team and Hong Kong would need to be at their best to match them, while Hong Kong would be competitive against some of the current teams at the top level.
But three Asian sevens series tournaments offering the potential of playing against a strong Japan side would have been ideal preparation for next year’s all-important qualifying tournament in Hong Kong.
Playing in Singapore a week after the Hong Kong Sevens almost seems a bit redundant, unless Hong Kong manage to win the qualifying tournament anyway.
Gareth Baber said in Hong Kong on the weekend that he doesn’t blame Japan and would probably do something similar if in the same situation.
“What an opportunity for them to develop young players and put them in an international competition against good international outfits and give them that exposure,” he said.
But he also admitted that is doesn’t at all help his side in the here and now: “We really want to be playing against the top Japanese side because that is what moves us on.”
It is interesting to ponder Japan’s thought process behind the move, and whether they are factoring in purely the acceleration of their own side, or also the fact that their playing a team of kids will also halt the development of their opponents.
Most likely it has crossed their minds and they would know that they act as not only Hong Kong’s measuring stick but also their best avenue to quality opposition.
We saw it in the Asia Rugby Championship this year to a lesser extent when Japan fielded what was at best a second-string side – albeit one still far too good for Hong Kong.
But sending a side with little chance of being competitive is on another level again and certainly does deprive Hong Kong of the big matches they so desperately need.
For Japan, the move makes perfect sense with the Olympics not far gone and the World Series ahead and it is evidence of the long view they are taking – and are able to take – ahead of the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.
The disappointment shown by coach Koichi Umeda after Japan was beaten twice on day one in Hong Kong last weekend – and the fact he says they expected to medal in Rio – proves the confidence they are building.
But that doesn’t help Hong Kong, who at the moment stands some chance to earn promotion to the World Series next April, but may well arrive there ill-equipped.