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By Michael Flaherty
HONG KONG (Reuters) - In the neighbourhoods where the Jamaican rugby sevens team trains, bullets fly and local gangs rule.
Their fields are as thin as asphalt and there is no weight training room.
Poor facilities is just one bump the organization has faced in the past few years, a larger one being the murder of Jamaica rugby stalwart Jacob Thompson in 2009.
But the sport has pressed on in a country better known for its track and field prowess, not to mention its brief foray into bobsledding. The Jamaican rugby team gained a spot in the sixth leg of the international sevens tour this year, arriving in Hong Kong last week for its debut in the 38th annual tournament.
Rugby sevens, where seven players compete in a fast paced version of the normally 15 per side game, has grown from an amateur sport to fully professional for some of the top teams.
The more than 20 nations who now compete have their eye on gaining a berth for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, where the sport will be incorporated for the first time.
The international circuit, the corporate sponsorship from the likes of HSBC, and the Olympic goal has transformed rugby sevens from amateur to professional. For the Jamaican team, however, the resources available to them have changed little over the course of time.
"We just play for the love of the game," said team captain Tyronie Rowe, 25.
His team mates juggle small children and factory jobs with a rigorous training schedule leading up to the sevens season.
Some major teams have fully paid players and more than a million dollars at their disposal, while others have a fraction of that. For Jamaica sevens, there is no money, having failed to gain a single corporate sponsor.
But the team has persevered. Rowe, a father of three, dwells on the progress, pointing out that a previous game years ago against Georgia ended in a loss by nearly 90 points. Their meeting over the weekend was a 27-17 defeat.
"We are starting to get rugby back," said Jamaica's coach Conroy O'Malley. He acknowledges that disorganization within Jamaica's own rugby administration, coupled with competition from other local sports leagues has hampered the expansion of international rugby in his country.
A major blow to the sport, however, was the murder of Thompson, an internationally respected rugby figure who was credited with building the sport in Jamaica over the span of 40 years.
"He was really the backbone of Jamaican rugby," said Jamaican sevens player Ronaldo Wade, 24.
Rowe said he was fortunate the sport came into his life, having grown up in a Kingston ghetto. He now travels the world as a rugby player, doing 1,000 push ups a day to make up for the lack of a proper weight room.
Kids in his neighbourhood who do not commit themselves full time to sport inevitably turn to guns, he said.
"In our area, rugby is the one of the only ways to stay out of trouble," Rowe said.
Jamaica's two other games in Hong Kong were a 43-0 loss to Asian powerhouse Japan, and a 31-5 loss to Brazil, another Hong Kong newcomer. The weekend ended on a high note, however, with Jamaica scoring its five points against Brazil with a last second, air-borne try.
Rowe said he was proud of his team, and he expected to come back to Hong Kong next year, with a better result. Gazing out at the field on Saturday, he was struck at the quality of the event, and of the pitch.
"That field is like velvet compared to ours back home," he said.
(Editing by Justin Palmer)
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