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Former Fern Richards coaching Hong Kong Women's Sevens

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irb.com     20 Aug 2014     Getty Images

And as the pools and schedule are confirmed for the 12-team tournament, a number of interesting match-ups are on the cards.

One of the toughest groups will be Pool C where the ambitious home team will face 2016 Olympic Games hosts Brazil and the European duo of the Netherlands and Portugal. And at the centre of Hong Kong’s challenge will be coach Anna Richards, someone who is no stranger to the pressures of top-level rugby.

Richards won the last of her four Rugby World Cups for New Zealand as a 45-year-old in 2010. She is the most-capped Black Fern and an acknowledged superstar of the women's game.

And while New Zealand’s 16-year reign as Women’s Rugby World Cup champions came to an end when England beat Canada 21-9 in Paris on Sunday, life goes on. No one knows this better than the Black Ferns legend, who set herself some very different goals to achieve when she took over as Hong Kong’s women’s coach in February.

There’s a big difference between guiding New Zealand to victory in the Women’s RWC and coaching Hong Kong in the series qualifier, but it’s a task Richards is relishing.

It will be a massive challenge

“This will be a massive challenge. It’s the second tier of international teams. The likes of Netherlands, Brazil, France, Japan and China have all been playing on the circuit for the past year. They all played well, too, so it won’t be easy for us,” she said.

The one advantage Hong Kong have is that they will host the competition at Shek Kip Mei Stadium. But the advantage of home support won’t lessen the enormity of the task at hand.

“The reality is if we hadn’t hosted it we wouldn’t have been able to take part in the tournament, so it’s a massive opportunity for us to get the chance to play against some great teams,” Richards said.

“If we can post some good results we may be invited to play in an IRB tournament, so there are plenty of incentives for us to perform well. It’ll be a very tough tournament for us, but I still think we’re going to be competitive.”

Likely to be a hard-fought tournament

With four places up for grabs in next season’s Women’s Sevens World Series, the 12-team qualifying tournament looks set to be hard fought. In an open competition, France, Fiji, Brazil, and the Netherlands will go into the competition as slight favourites to qualify. However, Japan and China will also fancy their chances as the women’s Sevens game is thriving in both Asian countries.

“Now that Sevens is an Olympic sport everybody is putting a lot more effort and money into it. Japan is really improving and China is also putting a lot of resources into the women’s game here now. They’ll both be very strong in the tournament,” Richards said.

“Recently we have seen the Hong Kong women’s Fifteens team perform exceptionally well during the Asian Four Nations, again with a large compliment of sevens players on their roster. The funding and backing that sevens now has as an Olympic sport is definitely allowing more players to be up-skilled, which can only be good for our sport.”

France, Fiji and Brazil will head the tournament’s three pools. China will play in Pool A against France, South Africa and Mexico. Japan face Fiji Argentina and Kenya in Pool B, while Hong Kong will play in Pool C against Brazil, the Netherlands and Portugal.

Top four will qualify for the series

The format of the tournament is based on three pools of four teams with the top two from each pool, along with two best third-placed teams, progressing to the quarter-final stage. The four winners of those quarters will progress to the semi-finals but, more importantly, will secure qualification for what will be the third season of the series.

The qualifiers will join core teams New Zealand, Australia, Russia, England, Spain, USA and Canada in the Series, with one more team invited to participate at each of the six rounds.

Meanwhile, the IRB has also announced the match officials for the qualifying tournament. They are: Jessica Beard (New Zealand), Leah Berard (USA), Sara Cox (England), Alhambra Nievas (Spain), Amy Perrett (Australia) and Hong Kong’s own Gabriel Lee Wing-yi.