HK ready for World Cup warm-up in Europe
Beanies, fleece jackets and thermal underwear will be popular travelling companions as the 29-strong Hong Kong squad leave today on a groundbreaking three-game tour of Europe.
In the 57-year history of organised rugby, a Hong Kong team have never toured Europe - and certainly not in the dead of winter.
The most adventurous trip the city's 15s squad have made was perhaps a four-game tour of South Africa and Namibia in 1994 under George Simpkin, or a trip to Tunisia two seasons ago under coach John Walters.
Today a new frontier beckons as Hong Kong begin their build-up to the qualifying competition for the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.
'Yes, this is a huge step for Hong Kong rugby,' said head coach Dai Rees, who succeeded Walters last season. 'It is a bit of an unknown as we don't know much about the opposition, but these games will be crucial to our build-up to the World Cup qualifying campaign.'
The opening game will be against Germany on Saturday in Heidelberg, followed by a test against the Czech Republic next Wednesday in Prague and ending with an international against the Netherlands in Amsterdam on December 19.
'Germany will present the toughest challenge,' Rees said. 'I coached the Czechs a few years ago in sevens and they are a bit naive and I know we can beat them, similarly we should be too strong for Holland.'
Hong Kong are 34th in the IRB world rankings, Germany 27th, Holland 35th and the Czechs 36th.
With a silver medal from the East Asian Games safely under lock and key, the focus now turns to next year's HSBC Asian Five Nations, which will double as the regional qualifying tournament for the 2011 World Cup.
Asian champions Japan, who have represented the continent at all previous World Cups, are the clear favourites, and Hong Kong have set their sights on finishing second and making it through to the play-offs.
'This tour will be tough, but we have a big carrot in front, which is World Cup qualification,' Rees said. 'Japan might be a tough hurdle, but if we fail to beat them, our goal will be to finish second and go into the repechage against Uruguay.'
That game will be played away on July 18. The winners will then play against the winners of the tie between Tunisia and either Portugal or Spain in a home-and-away format to decide the World Cup berth.
The squad features 12 potential new caps, including Nick Hewson, Jack Bennett, Graham Manchester, Alex Baddeley, Salom Yiu Kam-shing, Fan Shun-kei and Ben Ho Tsz-chun.