Do-or-die time as HK face Koreans
'A work in progress' was how Dai Rees described it soon after he took over as head coach of Hong Kong in November 2008. Now, midway through his three-year tenure, the time has come to see if real progress has been made as Hong Kong meet South Korea at Sports Road today.
It will be win or nothing in this high-octane match-up, one of two games in the opening week of the HSBC Asian Five Nations Top Five competition. The other is in Almaty, where Kazakhstan host the Arabian Gulf. Japan, the fifth team in the mix, have the luxury of a bye.
The defending champions can afford to sit back and watch as they are outright favourites to win the solitary World Cup berth given to the winners of this tournament. Hong Kong know if they slip up, they can say goodbye to their hopes of finishing second and remaining in the race for a repechage spot.
'It is still a work in progress, but we have made huge strides as we have more depth in player numbers now,' Rees said yesterday. 'But we have to start winning games and live up to expectations of finishing at the top end in Asia in 15s.'
The onus is on new captain Simon Leung Ho-yam, who firmly believes Hong Kong will be able to turn the tables on South Korea for the first time in this competition and finish in second place at least. Hong Kong finished fourth last year, and third in the inaugural competition in 2008.
'We have a great chance to beat Korea and do well in the rest of the competition,' Leung said. 'This is one of the most talented sides I have played with.'
The Korean squad will be determined to regain the number-two slot in Asia, which they lost to Kazakhstan last year.
'We have to start well,' Leung said. 'The last two times we played Korea, we began poorly and that cost us. While games are won over 80 minutes, you can still easily lose them in the first 20 minutes.'
Last year Korea scored 24 unanswered points in the first 17 minutes, forcing Hong Kong to play catch-up. They came close, but still ended up losing 36-34.
To prevent a repeat, Rees has augmented his midfield defence and picked a mobile back row be led by No8 Leung. This tactic has seen changes on both wings, with Adam Raby and the injured Simon Smith sidelined.
In come Alex McQueen and Salom Yiu Kam-shing, who will give the side a better defensive capability out wide. The midfield will also be iron-clad thanks to vice-captain Simon Hempel and Rowan Varty, while the return of Colin Bisley at fullback will give Hong Kong more options in attack and defence.
Rees has also shifted Mark Wright from centre to the openside flank, giving the sevens captain more opportunity to be involved in play. The mobility of the pack will be enhanced with flanker Nigel Clarke starting at second row.
The only worry is in the front row, with tighthead prop Nigel Hobler carrying a calf injury. If he fails to pass a fitness test this morning, he will be replaced by Jack Bennet, with Andy Li coming on to the bench.
'Everyone is quite optimistic. It will be important that no one gets overawed,' Rees said.
Hong Kong: 1-Pete Spizzirri, 2-Jon Abel, 3-Nigel Hobler/Jack Bennett, 4-Charles French, 5-Nigel Clarke, 6-Nick Hewson, 7-Mark Wright, 8-Simon Leung Ho-yam (captain), 9-Tim Alexander, 10-Keith Robertson, 11-Salom Yiu Kam-shing, 12-Simon Hempel, 13-Rowan Varty, 14-Alex McQueen, 15-Colin Bisley. Reserves: Alex Ng Wai-shing, Renaud Chavanis, Jack Bennett/Andy Li, Kwok Ka-chun, So Hok-ken, Tom McQueen, James Kibble.
South Korea: 1-Jeong Gyeong-won, 2-Kim Jong-wook, 3-Kim Sung-hwan, 4-You Yong-nam, 5-Youn Kwon-woo, 6-Lee Kwang-moon, 7-Kim Jeong-min, 8-Han Kun-kyu, 9-Yang Young-hoon, 10-Oh Youn-hyung, 11-Choi Si-won, 12-Yoo Chul-kyu, 13-Bae Chang-whan, 14-Noh Byung-kwan, 15-Kim Won-yong. Reserves: Oh Sin-am, Park Jong-yeul, Kwon Oh-yong, Im Jeong-min, Shin Ki Cheol, An Sea-kyung, Jeon Chi-do.