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  • Aug 29, 2014
  • Updated: 7:24pm

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PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 October, 2011, 12:00am

It's a hot day on the artificial turf at King's Park Sports Ground in Ho Man Tin, where 250 youngsters under 12 are playing in 'national' teams mirroring the World Rugby Cup in New Zealand. Among the youngsters are Calvin Harris, 11, and his brother Leighton, seven. The British-born Harris brothers, who have been playing mini rugby for a year, are keen to make their mark at the Te Aka Aorere Mini Rugby Tournament, and for Calvin it's time to try out a strategy for scoring tries that he picked up recently.

'I don't play in the scrum, so you have to wait for the ball to come out. It can be quite frustrating at times,' he says. 'But now that the other players have realised that me and my brother can run quite fast, they tend to pass the ball to us.'

The relatively small number of players who took part in last month's tournament, hosted by the New Zealand Consulate with support from the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union (HKRFU) and the Hong Kong Mini Rugby Football Union (HKMRFU), belies the ascent of mini rugby in Hong Kong. Designed to introduce rugby to children under 13, it features nine players a side and uses a smaller ball and pitch than the standard game. It took root here in the late 1980s, inspired partly by the Hong Kong Sevens. And just as the Sevens has grown into a key international sporting event, mini rugby has also taken off. The city now has 18 mini rugby clubs, with another due to kick off before the end of the year.

The clubs organise six tournaments a year involving thousands of young players, a logistical challenge for the organisers. HKMRFU chairman Case Everaert estimates Hong Kong will have 4,000 mini rugby players by the end of the year - and that about half will be Chinese.

'The Rugby Sevens has created an enormous rugby culture in Hong Kong,' Everaert says. 'It's the premier Sevens event in the world. What people did not know is just how big mini rugby is in Hong Kong.'

Youngsters such as Leung Wai-hing represent the new face of the sport. Now 10, he has been playing mini rugby for three years for the Tin Shui Wai team, often as a centre, and reckons he's pretty good. Yet until he heard about it from his friends, Wai-hing hadn't even watched rugby on television. Now the youngster prefers mini rugby to soccer, which he finds more complicated. 'I can't control the football!' he says.

Mini rugby's popularity here was illustrated last year in October, when 2,610 children set a Guinness world record by playing the sport at the same time - three times the number of youngsters who set the previous record.

The children's teams provide sports officials with an invaluable opportunity to spot and groom emerging talent. For instance, HKRFU youth director Mike Haynes' two sons, Anthony and Ed, played mini rugby with local clubs before joining the Hong Kong team.

But while the union might be scouting talent, Everaert and Haynes emphasise that the most important aspect of mini rugby at a younger age is fun.

'Fun is the word that I want to hear,' Everaert says. 'It really is a game for all - tall, short, fast, slow - there's always a role that you can play in a team.'

Historically, rugby has been a largely expatriate sport in Hong Kong, introduced by the British and more traditionally played in English Schools Foundation and international schools, but the number of Chinese children playing has grown dramatically.

'Now it's about 50-50,' says Everaert, referring to the make-up of local and expatriate children in mini rugby teams. 'Rugby used to be played at schools like La Salle College, and all these other colleges. They dropped it for some years, but now it is coming back into fashion. They've all got teams. They now have [physical education] teachers who are being trained as rugby coaches. So now you're seeing this spread.'

The HKRFU has laid much of the groundwork with its community outreach efforts. Officials such as union community manager Robbie McRobbie regularly visit primary and secondary schools with a fun, 45-minute introductory display to explain to students what the game is about.

'The audience we're addressing is the kids themselves,' McRobbie says, adding that they also need to get parents and teachers on board.

There is a common perception that rugby is a tough game and children are likely to get hurt, but Haynes says that if the children are taught correctly and know what they're doing, they don't get injured. 'And that's being picked up on now by coaches and phys ed teachers, so that they can spread the knowledge.'

Another programme managed by the rugby union, in tandem with the Crime Prevention Bureau, is 'Don't Drop the Ball', which is designed to promote health and sport in New Territories schools.

'The idea is: life is like a ball. Stay focused and on the right path - don't drop it,' McRobbie says. Each child receives a ball and makes a pledge that they will, among other things, stay away from triads. Police officers who play rugby are recruited to act as mentors to the youngsters.

'They're great role models. One of them is Tsang Hing-hung, who plays for both the 15s and sevens for the Hong Kong national team. He was part of the Asian Games silver-medal-winning team in Guangzhou last year,' McRobbie says.

Last year, more than 30 schools took part in the programme, which is sponsored by Standard Chartered Bank.

Over the summer, the HKRFU also runs other schemes with troubled teens, disadvantaged children in homes run by charities such as Po Leung Kuk, as well as those in special-needs schools.

It's often an inspiring experience. 'You just need to give the youngsters an opportunity, something they can put their focus and energy into,' McRobbie says. 'Some of the children are quite challenged, but they love the opportunity to get out there and have fun.

'For us, it's not about the elite level, but giving every kid the chance to play rugby if they want to. For some players and families, the aspiration is to wear the Hong Kong national shirt. There will only be very few out of the thousands who play who will ever achieve that. But many will go on to have an involvement with sport in the community and will experience the fun and enjoyment that it brings.'

Now mini rugby has grown so quickly that its expansion is being held back by a shortage of pitches.

'One of the big problems is the lack of space. The government recognises this and is trying to work with us to develop more pitches,' Haynes says.

There are few grass pitches available in Hong Kong. What's more, they require greater maintenance, and often get torn up and dried out, which is why the union is turning to artificial turf pitches such as the one at King's Park.

'We're currently investing HK$10 million to build [an artificial surface pitch] in Tin Shui Wai that can be used for all sports, not just rugby. Most of that is profits from the Hong Kong Sevens. That money has come from the community, so we are putting it back into the community,' McRobbie says.

Girls and boys as young as five can take part in mini rugby. They initially learn touch and tag rugby with no tackles until they are older. Touching another player's head with both hands means that player has to surrender the ball. Tackling is introduced in the under-nines when the players are eight years old.

Some of the players' fathers have become coaches, while others watch from the sidelines, beer in hand. The muscled thighs signal their rugby heritage; the beer bellies are a more recent addition.

Businessman Victor Ho is delighted at how his young son, Kohki, has thrown himself into the sport. 'It's mostly the atmosphere,' the proud father says. 'You can smell the sports in the air; no, really! And everything is fun. My son has made so many friends. When I was growing up at school, we did football, but unfortunately no rugby. Our time was so academic in comparison to now.'

Despite having only played for six months with Sandy Bay, 11-year-old Kohki has been chosen for the under-12s national team, and he shows the spirit that helped him win a place. 'When you have a tackle, you can't be scared. If you are confident, you can make a great tackle and gain a point,' Kohki says.

As the Te Aka Aorere tournament closes, McRobbie, a Scotsman, announces proudly that 'Scotland' have won. Calvin Harris wins the certificate for most valuable player. Another certificate is awarded for 'the longest pass by a mum' but since none took part, it goes to a dad.

Future fixtures

Art Futures Group DB Pirates All Girls' Rugby, All Girls' Beach Rugby Tournament, Saturday, Tai Pak Beach, Discovery Bay

DeA Tigers Rugby Football Club Mini Rugby Festival, November 6, King's Park Sports Ground, Ho Man Tin

HKU Sandy Bay Rugby Football Club Mini Rugby Festival, November 27, Sandy Bay Sports Ground

Flying Kukris Mini Rugby Festival, December 11, King's Park

For more information on Hong Kong clubs, visit www.hkrugby.com; e-mail: info@hkugby.com

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