Full-time rugby a must for HK
Another season is over and Hong Kong rugby has to again come to terms with the fact we are a long way behind Japan, who continue to dominate the HSBC Asian Five Nations Top Five competition. Japan hold a proud record of not only having won all five tournaments since the bank came on board in 2008 as title sponsors, but of remaining undefeated in the process. And if you add the icing to this cake - they have collected a bonus point in all their 20 outings over the five years, by scoring four tries (and more) - it underlines the vast gulf between Asia's No1 team and the rest.
This is not new. Even in the old days Japan ruled the roost. The Asian Rugby Football Union was formed in 1968 with Hong Kong one of eight founding members. Its purpose was to provide members with international competition. And so a tournament was established the following year, to be held biennially.
From 1969 to 2004, Japan won a total of 14 titles. The only times they were unsuccessful were in 1982, 1986, 1988, 1990 and 2002 when South Korea defeated them in the final. Those Asian Rugby Championships were replaced by the annual Asian Rugby Series in 2005, and Japan continued to conquer.
With the old eight-team format made redundant by newer members joining the Asian family, and the fact it had become too expensive for one host union to stage one big week-long tournament, it was decided to split Asia into divisions, as it was felt unproductive for countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, all founding members, to be hammered by 100 points or more by Japan. The world, and Japan, moved on. But it seemed the rest of Asian rugby, now enlarged to 28 countries, is still stuck behind.
In 2008, Asian rugby received a double boost. The International Rugby Board, recognising the pioneering efforts by one of its most forward-looking regions, handed over a grant of ?00,000 to restructure the annual competition. But the bigger achievement was netting a blue-chip sponsor for the first time in the form of HSBC.
This allowed Asian officials to create a competitive tournament that reached down to every union, be it in Laos or Jordan, with a promotion-relegation system. And at the very top were the five best teams. Hong Kong have been in this group from the outset with ambitions of perhaps one day vying for the top prize. As we have seen so many times, these ambitions remain just a dream.
Under new coach Eddie Jones, Japan are playing a heady brand of rugby at a speed that has left the rest of Asia literally breathless. The real test for Japan will be if they can match the bigger opposition they will encounter in the Pacific, as well as the other 13 countries ranked above them in the IRB rankings as they try to close the gap on the rest of the world.
These gaps, between Hong Kong and Japan, and Japan and the rest of the world, left Hong Kong Rugby Football Union president Brian Stevenson in a contemplative mood after the final game against Kazakhstan at Mong Kok Stadium last Saturday.
'It is just frightening to think how far behind the rest of the world Hong Kong is when you consider that Japan gets beaten heavily by the top nations,' said Stevenson.
Japan beat us 67-0 last month. That will equate to a 100-point plus loss at the hands of say the All Blacks or England. It shows the uninitiated where we are placed in world rugby and puts in stark perspective our hopes of one day playing in a 15-a-side World Cup. But there is no harm in dreaming.
There is no point in trying to hide the fact this season was a disappointment. After finishing second for the first time in the A5N last year the Hong Kong camp talked up their chances and hopes of challenging Japan. But a narrow 21-19 loss to South Korea in the final seconds of that match proved a dose of reality.
With Kazakhstan being relegated, Hong Kong remain the only side other than Japan to remain in the Top Five since its inception. While this might be laudable, it should not be used to gloss over the disappointment of finishing third and way behind Japan in playing standards. Japan are the gold standard. We have to close the gap and there is only one way we can do that - by offering full-time playing contracts for our players and to try to get them positions in the Japan Top League.
Hong Kong have defeated Japan only four times, all in the now defunct Pac Rim competition in the mid-to-late 90s. Hong Kong fielded a number of full-time professionals then. The model for success is there to follow. But if we are to carry on with our part-timers, however professionally they are managed and looked after, the end result will always be the same as it's been since 1969.