RugbyU: Jamaica debut at Hong Kong Sevens

While the titans of international rugby slug it out at the Hong Kong Sevens this weekend, Jamaica are hoping their first outing at the tournament will put the game on the map back home.

In a nation lauded for its cricket, athletics and football prowess, rugby is a fledgling but growing sport with an increasing fan base, says Jamaica coach Conroy O'Malley.

"It's not as popular as soccer but it is a growing sport. We've been progressing over the past 12 years in terms of rugby development and we have a lot of fans now -- I'd say around 50,000 people that are really interested. They'll be watching us in this Sevens on TV," he told AFP.

Jamaica are taking part in a pre-qualifier tournament at the Hong Kong Sevens which runs parallel to the main HSBC Sevens World Series competition.

They are vying with 11 other teams to come in the top four of that contest, earning them a place at the London Sevens in May and a chance to be promoted into the World Series next year.

The dramatic setting of the 40,000-seater Hong Kong Stadium with its singing crowds and electric atmosphere is a far cry from what the team are used to.

"This is the biggest stadium and crowd the team has played in front of and it will help us build confidence," captain Tyronie Rowe told AFP.

"The pitch here for us is like velvet. We train on asphalt so most of the guys here get a lot of injuries," said Rowe, who also plays for the national 15s side.

Rowe hopes that a good performance in Hong Kong will spur sponsors and the authorities in Jamaica to give rugby better backing.

"Rugby can join cricket, track-and-field and football, with more support from local authorities. We could have better training conditions and push a lot further. Because we don't have gym facilities at the moment, I home-train on my own," he said.

Jamaica lost their first match to Georgia 27-17 on Friday night and are bottom of their group going into Saturday, when they take on Japan and Brazil.

But O'Malley said he was happy with the team's performance.

"A lot of folks may have expected us to be trampled by the Georgians but with that score I think they'll look at us differently from now on," he said.

"I just told the players to get out there, enjoy themselves and put on a good show."