After running Japan close last weekend in a 29-17 loss in Tokyo, Hong Kong coach Leigh Jones has stuck with a largely settled squad for this Saturday’s Asia Rugby Championship (ARC) re-match Hong Kong V Japan at Hong Kong Football Club (16.00).
Hong Kong held its own against Japan and even rattled the hosts, (11th in the world in the latest World Rugby rankings), at times after achieving parity up front for the first time in recent memory.
The starting forward pack played well and Jones has rewarded their effort by retaining his starting tight five for the home opener. Ben Roberts will again lead the squad from hooker as captain, alongside props Ben Higgins and Dylan Rogers, who turned in a sterling performance on his Hong Kong debut last weekend. James Cunningham and Adrian Griffiths have also been retained as the starting second row, keeping Hong Kong’s tight five intact as Jones looks to ensure another stable platform at the scrum and line-out.
Originally from South Africa, Rogers played for Western Province, the Griqas and Connaught before arriving in Hong Kong on New Year’s Eve three years ago and joined the HKRU’s Elite Rugby Programme (ERP) in April.
“I was really pleased to make my debut. I think in terms of Asian rugby there is no better place to do that than in Japan,” said Rogers.
“I’ve been full-time for the last couple of months and one of the benefits of the ERP is that we’re together every day as a squad. It’s been really good getting to know the rest of the players a bit better.”
While getting to know his non-club team-mates has been an early objective, Rogers is familiar with some of his teammates in the squad, including fly-half Matt Rosslee.
“I went to the University of Cape Town with Matt. He and I played more than 50 matches together at uni. It’s the first time we’ve played on the same team since 2009, so it was nice to be able to get my first cap with him on the pitch eight years later.”
A quantity surveyor by trade, Rogers has mapped out Hong Kong’s chances against Japan on Saturday.
“I think we played well in Tokyo overall. We rose to the occasion certainly, but there were moments where we let ourselves down. We dropped our intensity and didn’t follow our processes at times and that cost us.
“We know Japan will be hurting a bit, so we’re expecting a much tougher challenge. Eliminating those individual errors that held us back last week will be a key to our chances.”
With a collective goal in mind, Rogers is confident that the team can further up their performance.
“I’m quietly optimistic. We know there’s an opportunity for us and that we’re in one of the better positions we’ve been in for a long time, but it will take a full 80 minutes and a lot of individual effort. We have to raise our game another 20% now and we realise that,” added Rogers.
Hong Kong have made two changes in the forward pack, with starts to experienced flankers Nick Hewson and Matt Lamming, as both teams will be out to recycle possession quickly at the breakdown. Dan Falvey shifts from starting on the flank last week to his customary position of No.8.
There are two changes in the backline, with Ally Maclay starting on the left wing, while Alex McQueen returns from a non-rugby injury that kept him out of this year’s Hong Kong Sevens campaign to start at full-back. Salom Yiu Kam-shing retains his spot on the right wing. The interior backs remain unchanged with scrumhalf Jamie Hood and fly-half Matt Rosslee returning at the pivot, while centres pairing Lex Kaleca and Tyler Spitz also keep their starting positions.
Jones is mindful that last week’s match is now in the history books.
“I’m looking for us to back it up this week. The progress in the team is evident but can we back up again after such an intense game. That’s a further test of how successful our programme is.
“I like where the players are; I think they are up for the occasion. I’m reluctant to say it but for the first time in my tenure – and I’ve been here five or six years, the players have the belief that they can beat this team.
“Now that’s got to be tempered with common sense. Japan are used to producing that intensity week-in, week-out with their Top League. We are still not even two years into professionalism. Are we ready to back-up at a consistent level, week-in, week-out? I’m not sure we are there yet, but it all points to an interesting game.
“We’ve earned their respect and if we can maintain or even progress that respect then we’re heading the right way. They are going to be an angry team,” Jones added.
Cado Lee Ka-to is the only remnant of the back reserves from last week’s tie and will be joined on Saturday by winger Charles Higson-Smith and fly-half Ben Rimene, inching closer to full-time action after recovering from an injury sustained in the Hong Kong Sevens.
Jones also addressed Asia Rugby’s decision to no longer require neutral referees in this year’s ARC with Japanese referee Akihisa Aso in the middle tomorrow, saying:
“Asia Rugby have gone for having the best referees, which in my view is the best way forward, but we need Aki to be a strong referee tomorrow. I understand that there may be some pressure on him because he referees in Japan but this is an international and there is a lot of things at stake tomorrow and we need him to be strong in the middle.
“He’s up there in the Japan pecking order and if he wants to progress he needs to manage the game well, let the game flow and be objective in his decision-making.
“It was a difficult job for Tim [Baker] in Tokyo last week. We came out with a game plan to slow Japan down. We achieved that; now whether they looked at it as good work by us or indifferent refereeing I’m not sure, but it’s going to be a similar game tomorrow. We need to maintain our accuracy but we also need the ref to do his job and be totally objective in what he is doing,” said Jones.
Japan have made eight changes with new coach Jamie Joseph continuing to cast his eye over a wide group of players.
“You always want to win, but for me the tournament is for the development of our rugby. We want to use this as an opportunity to bring guys from our U20s set-up to the next level. This is an opportunity to increase our depth of players and these young guys want to win as well,” said Japan coach Jamie Joseph.
“Hong Kong’s rugby has really improved since last year, based on what I’ve seen on tape. Last week, they smacked us. They were highly motivated and they really took it to us. They made it hard for us to get any momentum and I’m expecting that times two tomorrow because it’s a home game for them.
“We are going to have to front up and it’s going to be a good challenge,” added Joseph.
Hong Kong V Japan
HKRU Squad for Japan (Match 2, 2017 Asia Rugby Championship):
1. Ben HIGGINS (Valley), 2. Ben ROBERTS (HKCC, captain), 3 Dylan ROGERS (HKCC), 4. James CUNNINGHAM (Kowloon), 5. Adrian GRIFFITHS (HKCC), 6. Nick HEWSON (Valley), 7. Matt LAMMING (HKCC), 8. Dan FALVEY (HKFC), 9. Jamie HOOD (HKFC), 10. Matt ROSSLEE (Valley), 11. Ally MACLAY (Valley), 12. Lex KALECA (HK Scottish), 13. Tyler SPITZ (USRC Tigers), 14. YIU Kam-shing (USRC Tigers), 15. Alex McQUEEN (HKCC), 16. JW MARKLEY (Valley), 17. Jack PARFITT (HKS), 18. Angus DIXON (Kowloon) 19. Kyle SULLIVAN (HKS), 20. Thomas LAMBOLEY (Valley), 21. Charles HIGSON-SMITH (HKFC), 22. Cado LEE Ka-to (USRC Tigers), 23. Ben RIMENE (Valley).