Less than two months after Rugby Sevens was included in the 2016 Olympic Games, this weekend in Hong Kong will see the sport make its debut in the East Asian Games as a competition sport with both a men’s and women’s event.
The first ever multi-sports Games to be held in Hong Kong, the East Asian Games is open to nine countries and territories in the region, including the hosts, China, Chinese Taipei, Guam, Japan, Korea, DPR Korea, Macau and Mongolia.
The Rugby Sevens competitions at the Hong Kong Stadium across Saturday and Sunday promise to be a cracker as the teams participating represent the elite men’s and women’s nations in Asian Sevens.
Three of the top five women’s teams in Asia will battle for the gold medal, while five of the six men’s sides occupied the top five spots in the final standings of the inaugural Asian Rugby Sevens Series in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, China and Chinese Taipei.
With the inception of the Asian Rugby Football Union’s new Sevens Series in 2009, the men’s teams enter the East Asian Games with more match seasoning and more head to head experience than at any time in the 42-year history of ARFU.
IOC President to present medal
Adding to the excitement, the organisers of the East Asian Games have announced that Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee, will attend the Rugby Sevens competition and present the gold medal to the winning men’s team.
Japan are the favourites to claim that gold medal after winning the Asian Rugby Sevens Series with a runners up finish in Shanghai and victory in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia in the two ranking events in the Series’ first year. They also won the Sri Lanka Sevens event last month.
Korea and Hong Kong will be the biggest threats to Japan’s gold medal hopes having finished second and third in the Asian Rugby Sevens Series standings, the Koreans beating Japan in the Shanghai final and the East Asian Games hosts reaching the final in Kota Kinabalu.
The Koreans have been reaping the benefits of a cohesive squad that features many of its key 15-a-side national team stars like hard-charging number 8 Han Hun Kyu, who promises to be a fan favourite with his impressive pace for a big man.
Golden incentive for Hong Kong
Hong Kong used the Asian Rugby Sevens Series, the World Games in Chinese Taipei and the Singapore Cricket Club Sevens to identify promising young players in their quest to claim a first ever East Asian Games gold medal in a team sport and have beaten their rivals in the Series.
“We are entering the competition in better shape than any tournament we have played in this year. There is a real belief we can medal and do something special for Hong Kong by winning a team gold,” said Hong Kong coach Dai Rees.
Captain Jeff Wong added: “Our preparation went well. The team has been training hard and we are hopeful for a gold. If we manage to play like we train we won’t be far off.
“If we bring gold home, I think rugby will become even more popular in Hong Kong and a lot more young kids and students will take up the sport. I can promise that we will do our very best.”
China and Chinese Taipei are also threats to make the medal rostrum on their day and both teams enter the competition with veteran sides. China will be led by the inspirational Zhang Zhiqiang, a local favourite from his many Hong Kong Sevens appearances, while Chinese Taipei – the best performing Asian team at the World Games in July – will be captained by long-time skipper Wang Kuo Feng.
China favourite in women’s event
In both the men’s and women’s competitions, the teams from the island of Guam, known locally as “the Rock”, can be counted on to punch above their weight and the other participants will overlook them at their peril.
China will undoubtedly start as clear favourites in the women’s tournament, having caught the eye in Dubai at the inaugural Women’s Rugby World Cup Sevens event en route to winning the Bowl final in March and then stormed to the Asian Women’s Sevens title with an unbeaten record in the 2009 event in Thailand.
Guam will have benefitted from four matches they played against China in the Shanghai Sevens, while Japan and Hong Kong will have their own aspirations of success in the women’s competition.
The Rugby Sevens action gets underway at 10:00 local time on Saturday and for more information, including live results, visit the official East Asian Games website at www.2009eastasiangames.hk.