The Hong Kong Rugby Union (HKRU) has announced its 32-man squad for the upcoming Asia Rugby Championship (ARC).
Ahead of the first test against Japan in Tokyo next week, Leigh Jones, General Manager of Rugby Performance at the HKRU, commented on the squad for this year’s campaign: “We have a good balance of experienced and young players, complimented by guys who put their hands up this season in domestic rugby.”
Among the new faces in the squad are prop Angus Dixon and flanker Phil Whitfield from Kowloon, as well as Hong Kong Scottish lock Kyle Sullivan, USRC Tigers fly-half Robbie Keith and HKCC prop Dylan Rogers, all of whom are in line for potential first caps.
Hong Kong prepared for the championship with an incoming tour by The Chiefs’ development squad, culminating in a training match.
Jones was encouraged by that fixture, saying, “I think it was quite apparent that we are making some good strides. Where previous encounters with them have been effectively over by half-time, this time the game was in the balance into the last 15-20 minutes. We pushed them and I thought we matched their power and intensity more effectively this year,” Jones added.
That performance was an important benchmark for the ARC – and the continued development of the HKRU’s Elite Rugby Programme (ERP).
“We have more depth coming through, and we saw some of that against the Chiefs, particularly in the play of some of the younger players who have been in the ERP for the past 12 months. When they came on they were more able to hold their own, which is a good sign of progress,” Jones added.
Jones is also seeing the ERP’s impact in the domestic league: “We definitely saw an increase in intensity during the league season, which was certainly higher than in the previous year. From that we have included some newly eligible players in the squad as an acknowledgement of their form during the recent club programme.
“I’ve said from day one, that the ERP programme will only be successful if we adopt a top down-bottom up approach where the club programme supports and enhances our international game. The ERP cannot work in isolation, the clubs have a huge role to play and because of their buy in and support over the course of last season the approach is starting to show some results.”
Hong Kong will head to Tokyo on Thursday to face Japan, who are once again comfortably atop the table after beating South Korea in successive matches (47-29 in Korea and 80-10 in Tokyo).
“The standard has been increasing in this tournament for several years. Japan [under new coach Jamie Joseph] changed tactics a lot from their Pacific Nations campaign. They had a more power-orientated approach and most of their scoring came from the scrum or line-out.
“They again look like the favourites, as they have been for a while now, but Korea look much improved after returning five or six players from the army. It will obviously be a tough competition for us and I am intrigued to see how we respond,” said Jones.
Hong Kong has finished second in recent seasons seeing off the challenge of Korea but that could be even harder this year.
“In the first match, Korea were more positive than in past years. Both teams recycled 80% of their own ball within three seconds, which is something we need to be prepared to combat, while also showing our own style.
“We also thrive off that three second ball, so it will be a quite interesting contest at the breakdown. We want to play positively as well and get our backs into the game. The challenge will again be up front in the forwards and whether we can generate the type of ball we want and need.
“They (the forwards) are fitter and stronger than they have ever been, while also displaying a better resilience under pressure, so I’m excited about the challenge ahead,” Jones noted.
Hong Kong will face Japan in Tokyo on Saturday, 6 May, before hosting Japan (13 May) at Hong Kong Football Club, followed by a bye week and a home and away series with Korea on 27 May away and 3 June at Hong Kong Football Club.
For Hong Kong the championship will be another dress rehearsal for next year’s Rugby World Cup Qualifiers.
“The world cup qualification campaign will come down to next season’s championship, so this year it’s just about continuing to build, build and build! Build numbers and depth; build a good marriage between skills and power; while also pushing the guys hard to new levels of mental toughness so we can cope more effectively under test match intensity.
“Going as far back to the Kenya tour last year we have been pretty clear in blooding youngsters to build depth, while also developing our skills, power and resliliance. The more youngsters we identify and develop, the better for both our club and international game. It helps make everything we are trying to do a little more self-sustaining.
“We want to continue the upwards spiral, culminating towards a peak next season when we front up for Rugby World Cup qualification,” said Jones, who will announce the 23-man squad for the away leg to Japan early this week before the team’s departure for Tokyo on Thursday.
HKRU Squad for Asia Rugby Championship:
Ben HIGGINS (prop), Angus DIXON (prop), Jamie TSANG (hooker), Ben ROBERTS (hooker), JW MARKLEY (hooker), Alex NG Wai-shing (prop), Dylan ROGERS (prop), Adrian GRIFFITHS (lock), James CUNNINGHAM (lock), Kyle SULLIVAN (lock), Fin FIELD (lock), Will EVERSFIELD (lock), Matt LAMMING (flanker), Phil WHITFIELD (flanker), Toby FENN (flanker), Nick HEWSON (flanker), Dan FALVEY (no.8), Thomas LAMBOLEY (no. 8), Cado LEE Ka-to (scrumhalf), Jamie HOOD (scrumhalf), Jason JEYAM (scrumhalf), Matt ROSSLEE (Fly-half/centre), Robbie KEITH (fly-half), Ben RIMENE (fly-half), Lex KALECA (centre), Tyler SPITZ (centre), Ally MACLAY (centre), Charles HIGSON-SMITH (wing/centre), Seb ALFONSI (wing), YIU Kam-shing (wing), Rowan VARTY (wing), Alex McQUEEN (full-back). Also to train: Tom McQUEEN (wing), Jack PARFITT (prop), Adam FULLGRABE (prop), Alex HARRIS (hooker), Tony WONG Ho-yeung (flanker), Joey CHEUNG Ho-yin (flanker). Development players: Matt WYATT (wing / full back), Mark COEBERGH (scrumhalf), Callum McFEAT-SMITH (prop).