Hong Kong play 27th ranked Belgium on 16 November at the Nelson Mandela Stadium in Brussels, and 16th ranked Spain the following weekend, (23 Nov.), at the Estadiu Central Universidad Complutense de Madrid ground during this month’s international test window.
Coach Andy Hall will bring a group of 30, with nearly a third (nine) in line for debuts as Hong Kong kicks off the next three-year cycle in preparation for qualification for Rugby World Cup 2023.
Amongst the new faces are a group of players that initially arrived through the HKRU’s development partnership with Super Rugby’s Waikato Chiefs. Fullback Nate de Thierry, back row Josh Dowsing and prop Tau Koloamatangi – a Chiefs alumnus originally brought in by Valley, are all set to earn first caps after featuring for the FWD South China Tigers in Global Rapid Rugby.
Two other ERP members in line for first caps include Hong Kong born prop Tom Bristow, who has previously played with Northampton Saints, Wasps and Sale, and Kowloon back rower James Sawyer.
They are joined by other top Premiership players from outside the HKRU’s professional fifteens and sevens programmes, including lock Mark Prior, No.8 Lawrence Miller, centre Guy Spanton and fly half Gregor McNeish. Spanton was born in Hong Kong, while the others qualify through residency.
The tour also offers opportunities for two emerging Hong Kong players at University overseas, with winger Marcus Ramage (Cardiff Uni.) and fullback Paul Altier (Bath Uni.), joining the team in Brussels. Altier was capped during the Asian Championship this year, while Ramage’s debut came in the Cup of Nations in 2016; he was also selected to tour Kenya the next season. Current U20s captain Sam Tsoi, a fixture in the Premiership this season, has also been selected.
Many senior campaigners are included in the touring party, which features 17 forwards and 13 backs. Liam Slatem leads the team with his fellow Hong Kong captains James Cunningham and Jamie Tsang also on tour. Matt Rosslee and Tyler Spitz are the old heads in the backs, joined by recent caps Ben Axten-Burett, Lewis Warner and sevens players Harry Sayers and Seb Brien. Cunningham and Tsang join props Dan Barlow and Jack Parfitt, and lock Kyle Sullivan as the veterans in the forwards.
Coach Hall summed up the selection neatly, saying, “At the start of the cycle, we are looking for players that can take us through to the next World Cup. It is important that those players selected are in a full-time programme or are performing well in the Premiership. If a player is performing well in the domestic competition but isn’t in our programmes, it would be foolhardy not to look at them. At this stage, we need to see if these players can perform at the next level.
“Equally, this is another chance to see how well our ERP players can mix it with the European competition we may have to beat come 2023. The ERP is not a closed shop and the guys understand that. We need to foster competition and one of the ways to do that is by picking from a larger pool.”
The squad – and opposition – have been selected with intent, reflecting where Hong Kong is at the start of the journey, and where it expects to finish, while keeping a watching eye on who is blocking the road.
“We are looking for players that can cope with the rugby we encountered at the last repechage. Ultimately, if we get there again, we are going to have to knock over teams like this and we have to know now that we can do that.”
Hall credited the players from the Premiership stream, saying, “They have been patient, stuck with it, and contributed domestically. Full credit to them, they deserve this opportunity and are useful additions.
“Nate, Josh, and Tau have been around the Chiefs set-up and have performed with the Tigers when given their chance. Josh and Tau in particular help our direct approach as impact runners that can dent the gain line. James Sawyer is another guy like that, a player that can challenge defensive lines.
“Mark Prior is another example. We are going into the lion’s den in terms of a physical challenge and Mark is robust and can deal with the attrition side of the game. He adds a bit of grunt and some steel.”
Given the challenges presented by northern hemisphere teams like Germany and Canada in the last repechage, Belgium and Spain will be useful bellwethers.
“This tour is a significant step up. Belgium are in the second tier Six Nations with Georgia, Romania, Russia, all World Cup teams or on the verge. On paper, Spain is the tougher game, but we are not taking Belgium lightly. Both teams pose a physical threat. Spain have another level to their attack, perhaps, but we expect Belgium to be similar to Germany, very abrasive up front.
“Coping with that physicality, and on successive weekends, will be a massive challenge. A lot of guys won’t have experienced this level before,” Hall pointed out.
With the inclusion of non-ERP players, integration is a priority for Hall, who acknowledged the challenges posed by a tight preparation window, saying: “Typically, the November window is never perfect because domestic competitions are on-going. Non-ERP members are only coming into camp now but we have a two-week window with them to see what they are like in that environment. We won’t be as comprehensively prepared as we would be going into an Asian championship, but you would be surprised what you can achieve in two weeks when you go away together.
“They are all picked on form, so we just need to channel that form now. It is a case of not trying to cure everything in a week or two, but keeping it simple and creating opportunities for them to execute.”
Hong Kong Touring Squad (November Tests v Belgium/Spain 2019):
Liam SLATEM (captain); James CUNNINGHAM, Jamie TSANG, Dan BARLOW, Tom BRISTOW*, Tak KOLOMATANGI*, Faizal SOLOMONA, Jack PARFITT, Alex POST, Mitch ANDREW, Mark PRIOR*, Kyle SULLIVAN, Craig LODGE, Sam TSOI, James SAWYER*, Josh DOWSING*, Lawrence MILLER*, Bryn PHILIPS, Gregor MCNEISH*, Matthew ROSSLEE, Ben AXTEN-BURRETT, Tyler SPITZ, Guy SPANTON*, Lewis WARNER, Marcus RAMAGE, Seb BRIEN, Harry SAYERS, Nathan DE THIERRY*, Paul ALTIER, Toby FENN.