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Hong Kong wins big in Airlines Cup final

by Zilia Zara-Papp

Special To The Japan Times

Playing off the South American continent for the first time, Brazil ended its participation in the Emirates Airlines Cup of Nations with a 37-3 loss Friday to champion Hong Kong.

Hong Kong won the inaugural tournament, which its rugby union coinitiated with the host United Arab Emirates Rugby Association. The event, fully sanctioned by the International Rugby Board, cobbled together tier-three nations from four continents, as Kenya, Brazil and Hong Kong all played along with host United Arab Emirates.

In the end, the Cup of Nations is headed for Asia, where it will stand out in the trophy case.

“For Hong Kong, this win is enormous,” Hong Kong head coach Dai Rees said. “We haven’t won silverware at fifteens’ side for a long, long time if ever at all, so to actually come away with a Cup is an enormous achievement for us. It’s been a good team effort. As Hong Kong, we learned a lot of lessons.”

Brazil suffered losses to both Kenya and Hong Kong, but laid a 66-3 drubbing on the host side. The tournament marked a huge step for the Brazilians ahead of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, which will feature rugby sevens as an event for the first time.

“It is a huge responsibility to participate in this tournament,” Brazil fly-half Lucas Duque said. “We are here to show our value. I never expected to go this far in such a different sport. It is an experience I will carry for the rest of my life.”

Duque used the tournament as a springboard to greater things. He is now on his way to France to try out for Top 14 and Division Two teams. He and his countrymen picked up some critical experience in the tournament.

“The biggest thing I learned in this tournament was never to have your mind set on wins,” Duque said. “Kenya was ranked 39th, and Brazil 29th. We thought it would be an easier game, but we came to the game (unfocused). Our minds were not in the game, and we learned our lesson. It is very important in rugby to always be on your toes.”

Hong Kong played in the Cup of Nations as a replacement for its annual European tour, when it would play the Netherlands, Norway, the Czech Republic and Germany. The tournament’s success raised the Asian union’s profile, as the games were televised in 15 countries.

“Kenya and Brazil proved to be tough opposition,” Rees said. “We were losing at halftime against Kenya and had to show a lot of composure. And again in the final against Brazil, we had a lot of work to do.”

The host union, currently unranked, was formed in 2009, replacing the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union, which incorporated Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain. It became a full member of the Asian Rugby Football Union (ARFU) in 2011.

Hong Kong had the most group points after round-robin play wrapped up, which earned it the silver. From the IRB’s perspective, the test matches prove vital not only for the development and international exposure of the teams, but also affect the teams’ world ranking as well.

“It’s clearly been a very successful tournament bringing in emerging nations from diverse continents,” IRB West Asia project manager Matthew Oakley said. “It was a good opportunity for them to see Hong Kong, which has its structures clearly in place in the high-performance area, so they have a chance to replicate this structure in their home unions.”

For Brazil, which earned its first rugby sevens victory over Argentina earlier this year, the Cup also represented a taste of world competition, which the Brazilians will need in order to compete in the Olympics in a few short years. Long known as a soccer power, Brazil hopes to find itself in a Rugby World Cup one day soon.

“When Rio was announced, it was the feeling of everything coming together,” Brazilian Rugby Confederation board member Roberto Germanos said. “We were kicked forward. We were trying to move and someone just kicked the ball forward to the field for us. It was wonderful. It raised interest for the people.”

Too bad for Brazil things didn’t come together in time to capture the first Cup of Nations, but for the nation of more than 200 million people, there is plenty of time.