Pro road is the only one to travel
Where to for Hong Kong rugby? For the first time in a long while, it is finally in a position to potentially make the big leap onto the professional stage. At what cost will this occur?
With the increasing success of the sevens team and the government’s acceptance that rugby deserves increased funding via the Sports Institute, the HKRFU will hopefully soon be in a position to start paying their players on a full-time basis. Currently, players give up time in their day jobs, use up valuable leave and train before and after work for events like the Hong Kong Sevens and the Asian 5 Nations.
Rugby enters the Sha Tin academy as an elite sport next month, with the extra funding and training facilities that brings. However, where does this leave the HKRFU? Will head coach Dai Rees still have total control over selection and training? Will the players still have access to the support network they currently enjoy? Or will the institute recruit its own “specialist” coaches and try to develop its own programme?
I have been a big supporter of Hong Kong rugby going down the professional route. Money made from events like the Sevens should go towards developing players at the elite level.
The HKRFU does this well and is continually spending money on new facilities and infrastructure. Over the past few years, the union has recruited some talented coaches and this has led to an improvement in club competitions that have filtered down into the development of all players.
Watching mini rugby competitions from week to week, you realise how much the game has benefited. It’s now time to start bearing the fruit. We have seen a number of Hong Kong-qualified boys return after attending university in the UK or Australia. We have also seen a larger number of players stay here for three years to meet residency rules.
The time is right to go professional, but it needs to be done properly. The union and government both need to be fully aware, and understanding, of who will be running the show. I would hope the HKRFU still has total control of the system and development of the game and the government provides the facilities and funding.
The emphasis can’t solely be on sevens. Yes, it is a big deal – soon to be an Olympic sport – and Hong Kong have the chance this year to become a core team in the HSBC Sevens World Series. But for the IRB to continue providing funding and support, 15s should not be forgottten. I’m not saying it needs to become professional immediately – with a small base of professional players in the set-up the overall standard will pick up. But it will need to become part of the bigger picture eventually.
Outside of rugby, players need a pathway. The sad reality of professional sport is it’s only a 10-year career, at most, for a select group. There needs to be educational support for players who wish to remain in Hong Kong and try to push for a professional career.
I was fortunate to know a few world-class sports people at university. I didn’t meet them through rugby, but through my studies. These individuals were encouraged by their particular sporting bodies to undertake a degree – not only did it give them something to fall back on to when they retired, it also gave them something outside of training to think about. It challenged them mentally and kept them away from the negative influences associated with sport.
My question to prospective rugby players in Hong Kong is, when you finish your rugby career what will you do? If you stay and try for a professional contract, will you be able to undertake some sort of further training?
Professional rugby is arriving late to Hong Kong, but it is coming. One day there could be a professional Hong Kong rugby team running out onto the world stage – and that excites me.
The systems in place will hold a professional squad in good stead, but red tape and uncertainty of who does what will hold rugby back.
I also hope there is a long-term plan for all players, in particular support for those who don’t make the cut or get injured, so that when that time comes they will not be wishing they had made a different choice when they were 18.