SINGAPORE - When Singapore Rugby Union (SRU) president Low Teo Ping drew Singapore out of the pot and into Group A on Tuesday, there were gasps all around the room.
Low had just drawn the Republic's 7s team against top seeds Hong Kong and China for this weekend's HSBC Asian Rugby Sevens Series (Singapore Sevens) at the Yio Chu Kang Stadium.
"Thanks," said SRU technical director and national coach Inoke Afeaki, as he jokingly tapped Low on the back.
The draw for the 12-team competition was conducted at the Copthorne King's Hotel.
The upcoming Singapore leg of the Asian Sevens - the final stop in the annual four-event tournament - will also feature Asian powerhouses Japan.
"Well, ours is easily the toughest group, but if you think about it, it's a blessing in disguise because we're going to get a lot out of it," said Afeaki.
"Besides, to be the best, you've got to beat the best. We gave Hong Kong a good fight before we lost to them (in August). Playing at home, it's a chance for the boys to show their families and friends what they've preparing for all this while.
"Our target for the tournament is to finish in the top six."
Defending series champions Hong Kong - they beat Singapore 22-0 in the first leg in Malaysia - are second in the overall rankings on 34 points after three legs, and will be looking to overtake table- toppers Japan (35 points).
Hosts Singapore are at 10th position (10 pts), with China one rung below (nine pts).
The big target for the SRU is to develop the men's sevens team for a goldmedal challenge at the 2015 South-east Asia (SEA) Games, which the Republic will host.
Preparations have been going well, according to Afeaki, who has putting the team, made up mostly of Under-23 players, through a rigorous fitness regimen involving altitude training since last month.
"Our game is built on speed and we have an abundance of that," he said, pointing to national players Daryl Chia and Jay-Hykel Jailani.
"Daryl and Jay are two of the best and fastest players on the circuit, if you ask me.
"The Sevens is all about speed and that will help us against teams like China who bring guys as tall as I am (1.90 metres)."
Low said the "hard knocks" received playing against big guns like Japan and Hong Kong will hold them in good stead for 2015.
He added: "Hopefully, this Singapore team will resonate with Singaporeans.
"With this tournament and the SCC 7s which took place last week, we are setting the stage for more rugby to come.
"We want to make rugby an important part of the Singapore Sports Hub landscape."
This weekend's Sevens series will also see the top teams vying for qualifying points for the Rio Olympics in 2016, when rugby will feature at the Games for the first time.
Hong Kong, Singapore, China
Malaysia, South Korea, United Arab Emirates
Sri Lanka, Philippines, Indonesia
Japan, Thailand, Taiwan
* The top two in each group progress to the quarter-finals.
Get The New Paper for more stories.