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Varty Q&A: “I genuinely think we have a very, very strong chance”

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ROWAN VARTY is hoping his 10th Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens will be his most memorable yet, as Hong Kong head into their fourth HSBC Sevens World Series qualifier with quiet optimism they can finally become a core team.

 

Interview & Portrait SportAsia

 

March 23, 2015: Rowan Varty turned 29 last Friday, the day it was confirmed he had been chosen to play for Hong Kong in what will be his 10th Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens in 11 years.

 

Varty ‑ who was born in the UK but grew up and learnt his rugby in Hong Kong ‑ first played in his hometown Sevens in 2005 at the age of 18, turning 19 on the Sunday. After missing the following year’s event, he has since played eight straight, with the stakes rising significantly in recent years.

 

Starting this Friday afternoon, the Hong Kong Sevens will host the HSBC Sevens World Series qualifier for the third time in four years, with London the venue in 2013. Hong Kong have impressed in each qualifier, but failed to deliver when it mattered. Varty, for one, thinks it will be different this time.

 

After falling short for the past three years, do you think Hong Kong can earn a core place on the HSBC Sevens World Series this time, with most of the squad having had well over a year training full-time at the Hong Kong Sports Institute (HKSI)?

In terms of physical preparation, we’re obviously fitter and stronger, plus we have more guys who are at that level physically. I think there’s 20‑plus guys who train every day and all of them are at that level physically.

 

Then tactically, there’s a lot more guys on the team who are able to analyse teams and deliver what two or three years ago we wouldn’t have been able to deliver in terms of tactical analysis of a team. Technically we’re working on our skills every day, so that side of things has also really improved.

 

I think the big one is mentally, because with sevens anyone can beat anyone on the day. We’ve proved that before and many teams have proved that against us before. But I think our mental prep has improved, such as when we went to Borneo three weeks ago, came up against strong teams in the likes of PNG, Tonga, Sri Lanka and so forth, and sort of put them away.

 

I know Tonga got the win over us in the pool game, but when it mattered, we really put them away. I think it was a convincing win against a very good team of a standard that we’re likely to meet this weekend, maybe in a quarter-final, a semi-final or even a final.

 

Hong Kong have come close for three years, but ultimately been frustrated. How do you look back on the previous attempts?

I thought we had a very strong team in 2012, which was held here. I think that was the last year Keith [Robertson] was involved. The guys feel that had we not lost that quarter-final to Japan, we would have gone on to qualify, because three teams qualified (as the Series expanded from 12 core teams to 15).

 

Keith tackled that guy and got the red card. It’s not for me to say whether or not it was a red card, but Keith’s a good mate of mine and I know he’s gutted that happened. But I don’t think that had an effect on us, to be honest, because we then played out of our skins for the rest of the game. Japan only won it in extra time and I think it just shows how good the team was.

 

We were obviously a bit gutted not to have qualified that year and obviously each year that goes by, the ship gets a bit further away from port.

 

In 2013, in London, I don’t think we were really there. We played well and beat Scotland, who were probably the top‑ranked side there, but then we just sort of lost our way a little bit and Spain had too much for us. I don’t really have too many regrets because Spain outplayed us on the day. They were better than us, so fair play to them.

 

I think since then, they went on to play another year in the Series and didn’t do so well, but let’s see how they are this coming weekend.

 

Last year, who knows what would have happened if we had beaten Italy. They played out of their skins to beat us in the semi-final. I don’t think they really had their game when we played them in the group. They had not really gotten going yet. All their players were decent players, so they were always going to be able to pull out a good performance.

 

I think we just got it wrong; played it wrong on the day. But looking back now, watching the videos of us play back then, we’re a different team. We’ve come a very, very long way in the last 12 months, as you’d expect with us being full‑time, and I genuinely think we have a very, very strong chance this year.

 

Rowan Varty, playing in his ninth Hong Kong Sevens, put Hong Kong 10-0 up against Chile at half-time before being substituted. Hong Kong will play Italy in Sunday's qualifier semi-final. Photos: Power Sport Images for HKRFU.

Varty against Chile in last year’s HSBC Sevens World Series qualifier. Action photos: Power Sport Images for HKRFU.

Looking at the 12 teams in this year’s qualifier, do you think the competition is stronger than last year, even though Japan won’t be there?

I think it’s sort of swings and roundabouts. Spain are obviously a strong team, but they’ve been off the Series for a year. I know one of the blokes on the Spain team, Glen Rolls. He’s a good player, although I believe he’s been working, as they’ve not been able to play full‑time. They’re still good players, but being full‑time has its benefits; it really, really does. It’s not just about sitting around all day. It does make a big difference.

 

Tonga weren’t there last time and yes, they’re strong. Teams like Zimbabwe are very good, but I’m sure the captain, Jacques [Leitao], won’t mind me saying, he’s another year older! There are stronger teams, there are maybe weaker teams. Like I said, it’s swings and roundabouts. Some stronger, some weaker, overall about the same.

 

You’re playing Uruguay, Mexico and Brazil in Pool E. How much research can be done on those teams, if not by you and the players personally, then by the management?

Sometimes it is us that does it. The boys are really keen. The key guys on the squad are sevens fans and outside of just doing our job and researching on these teams, doing analysis, we do watch a lot of sevens.

 

Uruguay have played on the circuit a few times, while recently we saw some footage of them playing some top teams in another tournament. Brazil have obviously had exposure. Mexico are the one we don’t really know much about, so it’s not really fair to say how good or bad they will be.

 

But they’ll be, as most teams in that region are, good in the breakdown, strong runners, fairly confrontational and certainly good defensively, if not all round. But that kind of game – South American-style rugby.

 

Are you happy Mark Wright has re-joined the squad?

Yeah, of course. Wrighty is one of my best mates. He told me this would be his first [Hong Kong] Sevens since 2010. I didn’t realise that. Mark and I went to Japan in 2010 and played that year while we were still contracted, and I played every year since, but he hasn’t.

 

I always think he’s there, because he’s such a part of the team. On the pitch he’s a fantastic player, but he brings a lot of leadership off it. He’s a very, very strong personality and he brings a lot of solidarity to the team. He’s a very, very good person to have, both in the squad and on the pitch.

 

I’m obviously gutted for Keith, another one of my good mates, that he’s not able to play. He’s unfortunately not been able to get back from a calf injury. I think everyone knows that Keith … Keith in his prime is one of the best players I’ve ever played with.

 

"[Against Italy] I think we just got it wrong. But we’ve come a very, very long way in the last 12 months."

“[Against Italy] I think we just got it wrong. But we’ve come a very, very long way in the last 12 months.”

How important is it for Hong Kong to win this year, both while there’s still home advantage and with you and others … entering the latter stage of your careers?

Yeah, you don’t have to tip‑toe around it. I know what you’re saying! Yeah, I’m 29, Wrighty is 30, Nick Hewson’s … I don’t know … 40 (laughs). I have no idea.

 

So, yes, the core of the team is getting older, but right now, we are in our prime. We are in our late 20s. We are experienced. Physically we’re still there. Certainly I feel physically fitter than I ever have and I’m sure most of the other boys feel exactly the same way.

 

It’s important we get on the Series because we’re at a stage in our careers where if not … if we can’t get somewhere with the sevens, then boys will want to look elsewhere, whether or not in rugby … they’ll want to get on with their lives.

 

But I think the guys we do have at the SI (Sports Institute) and the range of age is huge, from guys like Nick at the top to guys like Hugo Stiles and Mike Coverdale, Chris Maize, who are all young guys and very good players. It’s important that we get on, though, for the programme to really get going.

 

You’ve reached the Asian Games final, won the Asian Sevens Series and played in nine Hong Kong Sevens, so how would getting on the Sevens World Series rank in your rugby career?

This would be number one. To get on the Series is my number one goal for now. This year, it’s about the Series and the Olympic qualifier. Obviously the Olympics speaks for itself, but that’s a one‑off tournament. To be on the Series is pretty special for us.

 

We grew up loving the [Hong Kong] Sevens and watching it, and then when we started playing, we idolised the teams who are on the Series. We wanted to be there. We wanted to be there and play against them, and to be able to do that all year, that’s the goal. I’m not tiptoeing around that.

 

Japan won last year’s qualifier to become the first Asian core team on the series, but are bottom among the core teams. Would that worry you, how tough it could be?

We get along with the Japanese guys because we play them a lot, but they’re struggling this season because of the eligibility rules. This season you need a passport to play, whereas for the qualifier, you didn’t. So it was kind of like a poisoned chalice. They got the qualification and suddenly they’re on the Series in a year where for a team like Japan, passport eligibility is very, very tough.

 

Thankfully for us, passport eligibility is not a problem. Almost all the boys at the SI (Sports Institute) have a Hong Kong passport and they’ve given up their nationality to get that. Japan’s full strength team, yes, but the team they brought, certainly to the first half of the season, are all good players, but inexperienced in Sevens. They’ve had a hard time, I know.

 

What type of celebration would there be if you qualify?

I think it would be big, but we have to go to Tokyo the week after and do our job there. So if we qualify, we don’t want to go to Tokyo and then do poorly, because people will say, ‘Look, they’ve qualified, but here we go for next season, we’ll smash these boys around’.

 

Finally, have you ever allowed yourself to think about playing on the series, in the same tournaments as the likes of New Zealand, Fiji and South Africa, and all their star players?

It’s less about who we’re grouped with or if we get to be with this player or that player. Obviously they’re all great players.

 

It’s more about us as a group being able to go and do that, because I grew up with guys like Tom [McQueen], Alex [McQueen], Hoody (Jamie Hood), Keith, Wrighty and others.

 

So for us to be able to do that together, go to those 10 events, to be as a team at the highest level of rugby sevens in the world effectively week in, week out, there’s no better job, there’s no better feeling in the world. I’m 100 per cent sure I speak for everyone else in the squad when I say that.

 

For more information on the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens, visit: hksevens.com

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