Future Of Hong Kong Rugby On Display In Nairobi

The Hong Kong Rugby Union has named its travel squad for the upcoming two-test match Tour of Kenya. Hong Kong arrived in Nairobi on Friday 18 August, with the tests scheduled for 20 and 26 August respectively at the RFUEA Ground in Nairobi.

A core of experienced Elite Rugby Programme (ERP) members anchor the 28-man squad, complemented by several overseas-based juniors and newly eligible HKRU Premiership players, in a selection that HKRU General Manager for Rugby Performance and national XVs coach Leigh Jones says represents the future direction for Hong Kong Rugby.

“We’ve included a number of ERP players, both to give them another competitive opportunity and also to give us some spine and a base to work off of in Kenya. We’ve balanced that with a healthy number of new caps and returning junior players with a view to identify and develop some new talent,” Jones said.

Nick Hewson, Matt Lamming, Matt Rosslee, Ben Higgins, Alex Ng, Jamie Tsang, Lex Kaleca and Tyler Spitz are among the seasoned operators Jones will rely on in Kenya to provide structure for the newer players.

The high number of new faces in the squad reflects Jones’s focuses of unearthing new talent and retaining players who leave Hong Kong for university, a necessity given the impending extension of World Rugby eligibility for non-Hong Kong passport holders from three to five years starting in January.

“While we’re prepared for it, the 5-year eligibility ruling presents some challenges. In recent seasons, our club scene has provided around 50-60% of the national team, guys who have become eligible through the 3-year ruling. A large number of those players are then unavailable within five years, either because they leave Hong Kong to further their careers, or retire due to family commitments or age.

“This suggests that with the impending five year eligibility, we are potentially losing a crucial layer of feeder players into our national team. Moving forward, this will place an even greater emphasis on our development structures in finding and retaining more home-grown talent.

“Our selection for Kenya has been driven with this in mind,” said Jones.

A number of National Age Grade representatives have been included, several of whom were instrumental in establishing Hong Kong’s enviable position in Asia at U20s level, with numerous fifteens and seven titles to their credit. Forwards Finn Field, Mike Parfitt and Pierce Mackinlay-West and backs Liam Owens and James Christie are among the former U20s stars to have been included for Kenya, while winger Marcus Ramage, who made his debut in last year’s Cup of Nations, has also been selected.

“It’s great to bring the juniors back into our professional environment in line with our wider development policy. These are players we hope to get back after university with a view to making them professional athletes, so it is critical that we have a chance to evaluate them.”

Jones also looks forward to the debut of the newly eligible Premiership players. Club veterans like Valley stalwart Dayne Jans, USRC Tigers trio Dan Barlow, Liam Gallaher and Sam Purvis and HKCC scrum-half Liam Slatem are amongst nine players on debut in Africa.

“They are all very talented players. Now, we have to see who can make that step up to international level. I’m excited to see how they fare outside of their comfort zone,” said Jones.

Players in the rugby sevens programme at the Hong Kong Sports Institute (HKSI) were excluded from selection with the Asian sevens series starting early next month. Alongside the traditional spots in the Hong Kong Sevens qualifier being up for grabs, the series will also determine qualification for Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 and mark the bi-annual results benchmarking at the HKSI.

“It’s a critical phase for the sevens programme and their preparations have to take precedence, but that provides another opportunity for us to play some of the youngsters and further expand our base.”

Indicative of Jones’s intensifying search to unearth local talent is the selection of Evi Saua, a Samoan who played the game at home before marrying a local girl and moving to Hong Kong nine years ago.

Saua will make his debut for Hong Kong Scottish in the coming Premiership season but will be given an early look in Kenya.

The squad’s build-up has been hampered by the campaign’s late-summer timing.

“We started training in July, but will have only had seven rugby sessions before leaving, as we’ve focused on strength and conditioning. We didn’t want to sacrifice that as we know the players have a long Premiership season ahead of them.

“We’ve been pushing them extremely hard. The ERP players have managed it well because they are professional, but for the newer players there has been a lot of learning and a lot of fatigue involved, but they’ve responded magnificently. Being good rugby players and good guys, they enjoy this type of challenge. They wouldn’t be with us if they didn’t.”

Hong Kong toured Kenya for the first time last year, pushing Kenya A close in the warm-up match, (losing 24-18), before dropping the test 34-10. The challenge has not gotten any easier a year on either, according to Jones.

“Kenya have improved tremendously in the last 12 months. They have a new coaching team and have produced some impressive results. Can we go there and win? Yes, I think we can and undoubtedly it is a great opportunity for the players selected.”

“Last year, we were virtually a new team, coming in for a few games when we hadn’t had time to gel. We had to do that on the ground and Kenya proved effective at taking advantage of that situation and scoring off of our errors.

“It’s a similar scenario this time and we have tried to highlight just how deadly Kenya are for this group. If we give them ball from turnover scenarios, their ability to feed off that and their general speed and athleticism pose a real threat. We need to play structured and controlled rugby to be successful.”

Jones also noted that the tour is only one of several current challenges for Hong Kong Rugby: “We’re contesting the Asian Sevens, the U20s Trophy, the Women’s World Cup and this Tour all effectively at the same time and all from a very limited playing base. That’s a testament to our development structures and shows we’re doing things right, but I believe we still have much more potential to grow.

“Continuing to enhance our development structures will allow us to be more competitive on the world stage and that is a priority for us going forward,” said Jones.

Hong Kong Squad for Tour of Kenya 2017

NG Wai-shing (Valley), Ben HIGGINS (Valley), Callum McFEAT-SMITH* (HKFC), Dayne JANS* (Valley), Dan BARLOW* (USRC Tigers), Evi SAUA* (HK Scottish), Fin FIELD (Edinburgh Uni.), Jack PARFITT (HKS), James CHRISTIE* (Northumbria Uni.), James CUNNINGHAM (Kowloon), Jamie TSANG (Kowloon), Kyle SULLIVAN (HKS), Lex Kaleca RAUCA (HKS), Liam GALLAHER* (Tigers), Liam OWENS (Valley), Liam SLATEM* (HKCC), Marcus RAMAGE (HKS), Matt LAMMING (HKCC), Matt ROSSLEE (Valley), Mike PARFITT* (HKS), Nick HEWSON (Valley), Robbie KEITH (Tigers), Sam PURVIS* (Tigers), Seb ALFONSI (HKFC), Thomas LAMBOLEY (Valley), Tyler SPITZ (Tigers), WONG Ho-yeung (Valley), Pierce MACKINLAY-WEST (HKFC).

*Potential first cap

-Info courtesy of Hong Kong Rugby Union

News Reporter