All eyes will be on King's Park as Hong Kong breaks new ground

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 September, 2003, 12:00am

Hong Kong will break new ground today when international rugby is played for the first time on an artificial pitch. With special permission from the International Rugby Board (IRB), a local Select XV will play Taiwan this evening at the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union's (HKRFU) new headquarters at King's Park.

Boasting a state-of-the-art artificial pitch - costing $4 million - King's Park will be the centre of attention in this part of the world according to Allan Payne, HKRFU executive director. 'There is a lot of interest in how the artificial surface will hold up. I know for a fact that the Japanese, and closer to home, Macau, are also keen on having artificial surfaces.' Payne said.

Today's game is the precursor to Saturday's Test match between Hong Kong and Taiwan, also at King's Park. International rugby has to be played on a natural surface. But the HKRFU has got dispensation from the IRB to play on the synthetic surface known as Field Turf, a third generation artificial strip. 'We did a lot of investigation before picking this surface. The biggest problem we have always faced in Hong Kong is the lack of rugby fields and also the fact that the few we have don't hold up well during the season. The hard wear and tear takes a toll but I hope all that is in the past,' said Payne.

New Zealand's All Blacks have a training academy at Palmerston North which uses a similar surface to what has been picked by Hong Kong. According to Jim Middleton, the supplier of the pitch, the surface is widely in use these days. 'Rugby League uses it. Recently the United States played Russia in Moscow on an artificial surface. More than 70 per cent of English Premier League soccer teams also train on it,'' said Middleton.

The IRB has now issued strict guidelines on the use of artificial surfaces. Hong Kong will be the first of those countries, with limited grass pitches, to be given the green light to play on synthetic pitches.

The HKRFU has spent close to $18 million on refurbishing King's Park. New floodlights, a new clubhouse, an irrigation system and new stands have all been put in place. Given on a short-term lease from the government, the HKRFU will share the facilities with other sports like soccer and softball. But the pitch will primarily be used for rugby.

'We can play rugby 24 hours a day if need be, seven days a week, 365 days a year now,'' said Payne.

Now all that is needed is for the players to give their thumbs up.

Hong Kong, captained by hooker Tom Cameron, will field a far more competitive side than that beaten in a similar encounter against Taiwan a couple of seasons ago. 'We have more depth now. The last time we lost a similar match by close to 40 points. I'm looking for an improvement on that. It is the first match of the season and many of the guys will be still finding their feet. But it gives them an opportunity to push their names forward,'' said Hong Kong head coach Chris Roden.

Hong Kong Select XV: Duncan Robertson, Tom Cameron (captain), Tim Cohn, James Burbidge-King, Paul Chung Pui-wah, Graham Black, Hamish Miers, Clinton Heap, Lee Cheuk-yin, Ben Harris, Michael Lo Kwok-wai, Brett Shields, Simon Smith, Alex Gibbs, Chris Conbeer.