Hong Kong heartbreak as sevens dream ends cruelly
Keith Robertson was heartbroken. Salom Yiu Kam-shing cried in the arms of his mum. Rowan Varty and the rest of his team also shed tears in the dressing room.
Hong Kong's dreams of clinching a core-team berth in the elite HSBC Sevens World Series were cruelly ended when referee George Clancy brandished a killer red card to playmaker Robertson after only 30 seconds of their crucial quarter-final encounter against Japan.
The referee judged that Robertson's first hit of the game was a spear tackle - where a player is lifted off the ground and driven head to the ground. The laws call for immediate banishment. It was Robertson's first red card in six years of playing at the Hong Kong Sevens, and the first of his sevens career.
'I'm sorry if it was dangerous. It wasn't meant to be so. I was so fired up and I thought I had put in a great hit,' the pint-sized Robertson said. 'I couldn't believe I was sent off. I should have got a yellow card. It is really heartbreaking, as so much was riding on that match.'
Down to six men, Hong Kong heroically defied the odds, even though they lost skipper Varty a minute later after he clashed heads with teammate Kwok Ka-chun, both trying to stop a Japanese attack.
Having lost their top two players so early in the game, Hong Kong responded magnificently.
They were like Spartans at Thermopylae, or Custer at Little Big Horn, valiant and heroic, but destined to be vanquished.
For 13 minutes Anthony Haynes, Lee Jones, Alex McQueen, Kwok, Tom McQueen and Yiu defended superbly, even taking the attack to the Japanese. They cleverly slowed play down whenever they could, kicking for touch and taking eight line-outs. They tackled their hearts out.
At half-time it was scoreless, but just after the break Hong Kong struck the first blow when from a superb tackle by Tom McQueen, the ball was turned over, resulting in Haynes scoring.
In history, most heroic last stands always end in defeat. Japan, with the superior man advantage, levelled the score. The crowd, still seething at Clancy's decision, booed the Japanese player as he attempted the conversion. He missed and the scores were deadlocked.
Ross Armour and Mark Goosen came in for Kwok and Haynes. Armour had an opportunity to score the winning try but was agonisingly cut down inches from the line and the match went into sudden death extra time. Japan scored when they span the ball wide to Lote Tuqiri from a line-out, which was later disputed by Hong Kong team officials.
It was to no avail. Two decisions by the referee, bookending the match, cost Hong Kong dearly.
'I don't think I ever felt so upset and also so proud in one tournament or one game, for what these kids have achieved is phenomenal for Hong Kong,' said red-eyed head coach Dai Rees. 'I'm an emotional wreck at the moment but that performance with six guys on the field is probably the best performance they have ever produced, especially with what was at stake.'
Rees said the referee had no option but to show Robertson a red card, but questioned a later decision at the line-out which cost Hong Kong the match-winning try.
'The rules are there to protect the game. I have looked [on video] at Keith's tackle. The referee had to make a call at the time, but the guy hits the ground parallel - he doesn't hit the ground with his neck or head. He is upended and in one point his head is below his hips but he comes down into contact with Keith still holding him.
'The referee had to make a call and as a group of players and coaches the rules are there to protect the game. Unfortunately like Wales in the semi-finals of the World Cup [Wales captain Sam Warburton being sent off], we are a victim of the rules.
'We knew we would need a bit of luck to progress through today but we didn't have the luck with Keith's tackle. Yet within the laws of the game, it is definitely a red card but there was no malicious intent. Keith is not a malicious player.'
Robertson's presence at the Japan Sevens in Tokyo next week is now in doubt. The rules say a player sent off for a spear tackle will miss the next three games. 'I hope they don't ban him,' Rees said.
Hong Kong finished the preliminary round as the best of the 12 teams in the qualifiers. They were the first to be knocked out. And once again Japan were their nemesis - Hong Kong having lost to them in the gold medal finals at the Asian Games (2010) and East Asian Games (2009).
Although crushed at not being able to achieve the goal of joining the big boys on the world circuit, Rees said there was still much to look forward to. 'It's not a huge loss for Hong Kong rugby,' Rees said.
'We have shown we can be up there, and showed with a small group of guys we can be competitive. But it is not the be-all and end-all as our goal this year is to qualify for the World Cup [Sevens in Moscow next year], and ultimately to get into the Sports Institute so that we have full funding for the next four years.'