The Hong Kong, China men’s sevens squad was announced for this weekend’s Asian men’s qualifier for the rugby sevens competition at the 2020 Olympic Games.
Defending Asian Games gold medallists Hong Kong are the top seeds for the tournament, which features eight other sides from across Asia, bar Japan, who are exempt from qualifying as hosts in 2020.
The winners this weekend will advance directly to the 2020 Olympics, making history as the second Asian team to qualify for an Olympics after Japan’s effort in 2015.
Nine teams have signed on for the challenge, including Series participants China, Chinese Taipei, hosts South Korea, Philippines, Singapore and Sri Lanka, while Malaysia and Afghanistan have also turned up for a chance to book a golden ticket to Tokyo.
Hong Kong head Pool A along with Chinese Taipei and Malaysia, Pool B sees China atop the pool with the Philippines and Singapore, while Pool C has Sri Lanka, hosts South Korea and Afghanistan.
The odd number of teams means a change from the Asian series format with Hong Kong playing both pool matches on day one against Chinese Taipei (11.44am Hong Kong time) and Malaysia (2.14pm).
An eighth v ninth place play-off will be held to conclude day one with the winner of Pool A playing the winner of that match in the quarter-finals before advancing to play the winners of the quarter-final between the second placed teams in Pool B and C in the cup semi-final.
Hong Kong finished second behind Japan in the 2019 series, and will wear the favourites mantle in Incheon, after not having lost a game to any of this weekend’s participating teams this season. With an experienced cadre, Hong Kong coach Paul John believes his men are up to the task.
John has named a 14-strong squad, with a final 12 to be nominated on the eve of the tournament, along with an injury reserve player, giving the selectors maximum flexibility in naming a squad in peak form.
“We picked a few different and really strong squads for the Series this year to give an opportunity to a lot of guys to show what they could do, really. We have strength in depth now and training has been really competitive.
More Olympic Games qualifier action this weekend in Asia with Korea hosting 9 of the top teams
— Asia Rugby (@asiarugby) November 22, 2019
It is getting harder and harder and harder to select the team. We have 14 boys traveling, so you can see it is still not finalised yet.
“There will always be boys who are disappointed to be left behind, and that is the nature of competition. But the team has been selected, and rightfully so, and they are ready to go out there and hopefully do the job for rest of the team and for Hong Kong,” added John.
Having featured 19 players across the lead-in Asian series and taking a final 15 to the UK in late October for the Athlete Factory Sevens, John has thrown the net wide for this moment, but the final touring party features few surprises with a number of Hong Kong’s most experienced campaigners.
That includes captain Max Woodward and six other veterans of Hong Kong’s last bid to reach the Olympics in 2015 in Yiu Kam-shing, Lee Ka-to, Jamie Hood, Michael Coverdale, and Alex and Tom McQueen.
On that occasion, Hong Kong, under former coach Gareth Baber, fell at the final hurdle to Japan 24-19.
29-year old Woodward views the 2015 experience as a double-edged sword:
“We have played in this type of tournament before, with a team that, I think, was one of the best we have ever had, but we lost.
Fixtures and Results >>>>>>> #ARM7sQ
Those of us who were there haven’t forgotten that. Of course, the Japan team we lost to reached the bronze medal match in Rio, which puts it into perspective, but we remember what it is like to get so close to that ring.
“Our depth now is far, far better and that is the biggest difference since 2015.
Now every tournament there are dozens of guys who are eligible and playing to a very high standard. That makes our training so much more competitive and that is a huge bonus for our environment.
“The young guys selected have also been able to get experience in pressure games under their belt, and I think that will count for quite a lot in Korea,” added Woodward.
The seven set to make their Olympic qualifier debut include two other veteran players now eligible through residency in Ben Rimene and Lee Jones. Russell Webb leads the remainder of the group in terms of experience after emerging over the last two seasons. He anchored Hong Kong’s play on his appearances in this year’s Series, playing nearly every minute of the first two tournaments.
More of Hong Kong’s home grown talent is featured in recent age grade graduates Liam Herbert, Max Denmark and Hugo Stiles, all of whom were named once on the series this year, although Stiles’ appearance was cut short by injury.
Herbert proved influential in helping Hong Kong reach the finale in Sri Lanka after scoring two late tries to beat China in the semi-final, while Denmark made his Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens debut along with Webb in 2018. James Christie, who recently graduated from the U20s squad and was named as the 13th player for the Series finale in Sri Lanka, is also included.
The group is primarily the same as the 15-man squad that participated in the UK last month, in what was the best possible warm-up for the competition. Hong Kong lost to the USA in the Plate final in a creditable performance where they beat Ireland Development, Spain and Jamaica, while losing to England and South Africa.
“That was a good build-up event for us, playing against World Series competition and in cooler conditions like we can expect in Korea,” said John.
With preparation done and conditions trending positive, John now enters the waiting game.
“We are preparing for every eventuality that is all that we can do. We have done our homework, selection has been very competitive and we are ready. We know that we can’t afford to be complacent now, we need to start positively to build momentum throughout the tournament,” concluded John
With the winners advancing directly as Asia’s qualified representative for 2020, history will be made in the men’s tournament with a new entry to the Games after Japan qualified in 2015. Should Hong Kong bring home the trophy from Incheon it will qualify for the first ever Olympics in Hong Kong Rugby Union history, and be just the second Hong Kong team to qualify for a team sport event at a Games since Hockey in 1964.
HKRU Men’s Sevens Squad (14 Players); 2020 Olympic Qualifiers, Incheon, South Korea (23-24 Nov. 2019):
Max WOODWARD (Captain); Ben RIMENE; Max DENMARK; Lee JONES; Mike COVERDALE; Liam HERBERT; James CHRISTIE; Cado LEE Ka-to; Salom YIU Kam-shing; Russ WEBB; Alex MCQUEEN; Tom MCQUEEN; Jamie HOOD; Hugo STILES.
Where to watch: The Men Qualifiers will be live-streamed on the Asia Rugby Facebook page @Asia.rugby