Leading from the front

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 April, 2012, 12:00am


Forget the tinker, tailor, solider, spy conundrum. Hong Kong has a new and even more intriguing combination. A teacher, realtor and barman will present an exciting challenge to opponents in the HSBC Asian Five Nations Top Five tournament this season, a puzzle that hopefully will be tough to solve as the team go in search of a first championship title.

The trio - Ian Ridgway, Tom Bolland and Steve Nolan - are the 1, 2 and 3 of Hong Kong rugby. Those numbers represent the front-row positions in the team. Of course, there are others challenging for those spots within the 31-strong squad picked for the fifth season of the Asian Five Nations, but these three are the likeliest favourites when it comes to crunch time.

Certainly, everyone seems to think so, even the think tank of Dai Rees, the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union's head of performance and national coach, and Leigh Jones, the head coach, who both believe the Hong Kong Football Club trio will provide an extra dimension to the bid to wrest the title away from recurring winners Japan.

'It is great to have a bit of depth in the front row, what with the new boys from Hong Kong Football Club coming in and adding to the players we successfully developed last year,' Jones said. 'We always want to measure ourselves against the best and it's probably been fair to say that in the past against Japan we have lacked that solid base we needed. I think the depth of our front row is going to really be able to help give us that base to play the type of rugby we want to play in the coming weeks.'

Rees, who will take on a more managerial role this season, added: 'Each of these three guys adds strength and depth to our squad and obviously they have been dominant and heavier figures and stronger than we are used to having in Hong Kong. They have been a big boost for us and [it helps] that they play together week in, week out for the same club.'

Ridgway, Bolland and Nolan are already capped - although this is the first time for the trio in the A5N - having represented Hong Kong in last December's Emirates Airlines Cup of Nations against Brazil, Kenya and the United Arab Emirates in Dubai. Perhaps it is just coincidence that Hong Kong emerged champions of the inaugural event.

Ridgway, 32, a physical education teacher at Kellett School, is the loosehead prop in the combination. A strong scrummager and rock of the Football Club pack this season, he says they have big shoes to fill - Hong Kong finished runners-up to Japan, in the A5N for the first time last season.

'The guys involved last year did an amazing job and did Hong Kong proud,' Englishman Ridgway said. 'But you have to set your goals higher each time. When the competition starts, I'll take it one game at a time. But to emulate last year's performance and [go on to] win the competition will be the goal.'

Like the other two, Ridgway qualifies under the International Rugby Board's three-year residency rule. He arrived in Hong Kong four years ago, thanks to the persuasion of former Hong Kong international Andrew Chambers, an old friend from university.

'I came to Hong Kong to play rugby for Football Club and I have Donough Foley and Andrew to thank for that opportunity,' Ridgway said. 'Andrew and I met at De Montfort University in Bedford where we both played for the division one team Bedford Blues.'

Bolland, hooker and commercial real estate broker with Colliers International, married longtime girlfriend Sarah on Easter Sunday. It was a joint decision that saw the former Hampshire counties player pack his boots and come to Hong Kong four years ago.

'I met Sarah at university in England and we moved to Hong Kong in August 2008 in search of work and new experiences,' the 27-year-old Bolland said. 'I have been playing rugby since I was six, and have played as a hooker for half my life. I'm very excited about the A5N and the challenge it provides.'

The final member of the front-row juggernaut, Nolan, is also the oldest at 35. The tighthead strongman owns and runs a bar - Kila - on Pottinger Street in Central.

Irishman Nolan, whose nickname is Horse, sounds a cautionary note when asked if playing together with his Football Club teammates will make life easier at the coal face of the game. 'I guess we are familiar with each other having played together for the last three seasons, but it is a step up coming into the Hong Kong side. It is step up from playing at club level to the international level, and expectations are much higher,' says Nolan, a former division one player in the All-Ireland League.

Nolan missed out 'on the business end' of Club's domestic campaign this season after breaking his ankle in Dubai in December. Hopes are high that he will have recovered in time for Friday's opening game in the A5N, away to the United Arab Emirates.

'My fingers are crossed that I will be good. I still remember my injury. It was in the last few minutes of the game against Brazil when I tackled their No 8 and held him up and I felt my left ankle give way,' Nolan recounts. 'I had surgery on two ruptured ligaments in January and have been in rehab since. I have not played any competitive rugby since but I will be ready.'

It is unlikely that Nolan will be thrown into action right away, and he is most likely to start on the bench with the management probably looking at easing him back gradually before the crunch game against Japan on May 19 in Tokyo. In between these fixtures, Hong Kong will meet South Korea at home, on May 5, and that is likely to be the first time Ridgway, Bolland and Nolan run out on to the park together in the A5N.

'I would think there is an advantage in us playing together,' says Bolland, a strong ball-runner. 'We have played for Club for four seasons together so we know each other's game well. But having said that, the other front-row options in the Hong Kong squad are very strong, so it will be interesting to see what the coaches decide.'

The return of Valley duo Alex Ng Wai-shing - from a season playing for Pontypool - and Jack Bennett, the presence of impressive Kowloon hooker Alex Harris and debutant Lachlan Chubb will give the selectors plenty of options for the front row.

Ridgway agrees that life might be a bit easier in the company of his Club mates but believes the chemistry is growing with the other players, too.

'We came away from a successful Christmas tour to Dubai as a tight-knit squad. We are all extremely comfortable scrummaging with any combination in the front row,' Ridgway said. 'The most important thing about playing in the front row is having full confidence in the lads in there with you but also in those who are behind you [second and back row]. I always believe that a front row is only as good as the boys who are helping you out from behind.'

The readymade bond which the trio brings will be invaluable, especially against Japan and Kazakhstan (who Hong Kong meet at home on May 26), the two big obstacles standing in the way of a historic first triumph.

And such a bond isn't forged overnight. 'The bond between a front row grows as the seasons pass. Tom, Horse and myself all arrived at the same time in Hong Kong and have played alongside each other for near enough four years,' Ridgway says. 'It's a funny old world in the front row and you have to rely on each other, but you couldn't ask for better company than Tom and Horse.'

Bolland adds: 'We are at the coal face of the game and I believe the bond derives from the mutual desire to win the collision point at every scrum.'

This burning desire is what Hong Kong will need to spread throughout the rest of the team as they go in search of a first ever Asian Five Nations crown.