A squad of 35 of Hong Kong’s elite rugby players will embark on what is hoped will be a historic tour to Europe on Tuesday evening for the Rugby World Cup 2019 repechage in Marseille, France (11-23 November). The winner of the round-robin competition with Germany, Kenya and Canada will advance as the 20th and final team to Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan.
With a squad comprised of pro players from the HKRU’s three-year old Elite Rugby Programme, a sprinkling of Elite Rugby Sevens athletes from the HKSI, and a few players managing the challenges of high performance rugby whilst holding down Monday to Friday grinds, head coach Leigh Jones has arranged two matches in Wales as a warm-up.
Hong Kong will play the Newport Gwent Dragons Development squad on 29 October, before facing famed Welsh invitational side Crawshay’s on 2 November. Jones coached Dragons prior to Hong Kong.
Jones believes Wales will be good preparation, acclimating the squad to the heavier grounds and even heavier forwards they can expect to encounter in tussles with Germany, Kenya and Canada in France.
“We chose Wales purely because we know the terrain, we know the level of opposition there, and because we know what we are going to get from them. These are strong opponents that will test us with the same up-the-jumper style rugby we may experience in the repechage.”
The extended tour also gives Jones a last opportunity to integrate the moving parts within his squad.
“Kenya, Germany and Canada have all been together for the last month or so. Canada have played something like 18 games in their build-up to this tournament and have been virtually on tour for two months. This indicates the level of resource the opposing teams are throwing into this.
“We’re coming from a different perspective, with the majority of the squad being together for some time and recently joined by our key sevens players following the Asian Series, and finally our semi-professionals, who joined after the last league round.
“The challenge is our usual one, to get everyone up to speed and quickly. The upside is we have ten days in the UK prior to the repechage to do this.”
Fortunately for Jones, this trip, which was booked on short notice after Hong Kong beat Cook Islands in the Asia Rugby-Oceania play-off in July, is the culmination of an intense, three-year preparation period, starting with the inception of the Elite Rugby Programme (ERP), the HKRU’s first ever professional fifteen-a-side programme.
Hong Kong failed to reach this stage of qualification in 2014, losing to Uruguay in Montevideo. Andrew Hall was then head coach after Leigh Jones was recruited to shore up the Japanese coaching team ahead of their incredible 2015 run. Hall, who remains a part of the coaching team, spoke to the changes that have occurred since then.
“It’s incomparable really. The programme is so dramatically different now. The coaches prepared as best we could, but we only knew what we knew at that time. With Leigh coming back from Japan after the 2015 Rugby World Cup, I look back and think how much more we could have done.
“All of that has now been done over the past three years and the difference, not only in the personnel obviously, but in the programme, is dramatic.
“From the start of the ERP, the emphasis has been on faster, fitter, lower. That is our M.O., and if we hit our straps in those three elements, we give ourselves a real chance. We can’t bully people, but we can out-think and out-maneuver them.
“The World Cup is obviously another level, but one of our strengths coming in to this tournament is that we have, for all intents and purposes, a full-time national team. We have to make that count,” Hall said.
With the potential for injury, 35 players have been selected to travel with a final squad of 30 to be named before arriving in France in early November. The group features seven potential first caps, including one of the top scrummagers in Hong Kong in prop Grant Kemp. Lock Craig Lodge and hooker Mitch Andrews have been added into the forwards, adding competition in positions that Hong Kong has rarely seen previously.
In the backs, scrumhalf Bryn Phillips, centres Ben Axten-Burrett and Lewis Warner, and Tigers’ fullback Casey Stone, are all included in the wider squad. Jones believes that they add even more depth to Hong Kong’s bid in Marseille.
“There is no doubt selection has been tough, especially in certain positions,” said Jones.
“Grant is a top quality scrummager and has been working very hard on his game around the field. Craig has been a thorn in everyone’s side in the league, especially at the lineout. Not only is he assured of winning his own ball, he also puts pressure on the opposition’s ball.
“Bryn is a real quality scrumhalf and will push other guys in that position. Fortunately, we have a nice blend of scrumhalves and a good competition for who will start and who gets on the bench.
“Even though it’s possibly Casey’s first cap, he has high level experience playing back in New Zealand. He’s probably the form fullback in the league at the moment and a player who brings experience to the both the playing and coaching side of things.”
“Most of the new guys have been in the ERP for awhile in anticipation of this moment, so they are up to speed and will add to our depth. The 60 billion dollar question is will they step up at this level? Not just the new players, but the entire squad, against unfamiliar opposition?
“In terms of our preparation, physically, we are in a good place. The boys have worked harder than they ever have in their lives for this opportunity. Competition within the squad has helped; guys have really had to put their hands up in training to get noticed.
Given his experience with Japan in 2015, Jones knows more than anyone what it takes at this level and is also aware that Hong Kong’s next step on the Road to Rugby World Cup 2019 is one into the unknown. He relishes that fact.
“Excitement, trepidation, it’s all there, really. It’s the ‘I don’t know factor’, a bit like going across to the Cook Islands [earlier in the qualification process]. We’re not sure what to expect, other than that it will be physical and very tough.
“We’re ticking every possible box and everything is working in the right direction, but there are so many variables you can’t control. You still need a bit of luck and a couple of decisions to go your way. That’s the beauty of rugby, there are no guarantees,” Jones said.
Hong Kong Travel Squad RWC 2019 Repechage: Forwards James CUNNINGHAM ©, Callum MCFEAT-SMITH, Alexander POST, Ben HIGGINS, Ben ROBERTS, Craig LODGE*, Daniel BARLOW, Dayne JANS, Dylan ROGERS, Finlay FIELD, Grant KEMP*, Jack DELAFORCE, Jack PARFITT, Kane BOUCAUT, Michael PARFITT, Michael COVERDALE, Mitchell ANDREWS*, Nick HEWSON, Thomas LAMBOLEY, Toby FENN. Backs Ben RIMENE, Jamie HOOD, Salom YIU Kam-Shing, Benjamin AXTEN-BURRETT*, Bryn PHILLIPS*, Casey STONE*, Conor HARTLEY, Jamie LAUDER, Lewis WARNER*, Liam SLATEM, Matthew ROSSLEE, Max DENMARK, Max WOODWARD, Tyler SPITZ, Alex MCQUEEN.
* Potential first caps.