Boots and all

More is better in this ‘numbers game’

As Indonesia’s millions come into the rugby fold, Hong Kong’s player shortages continue to be exposed

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 November, 2013, 2:29pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 November, 2013, 11:41am

Suddenly, there are potentially 250 million more rugby players in the world. Well, ever since Indonesia was accepted by the International Rugby Board as its 101st full member this week.

Of course you need a stretch of the imagination to believe that those magical millions will translate into actual numbers on the field. Just like you needed to suspend belief watching Kieran Read stretch out and off-load the ball – despite the attention of three English defenders – which led to the first try being scored by Julian Savea in the Twickenham Test last Saturday.

Massaging numbers is something every authoritative power does well and the IRB is no different. They would love it if every man, woman and child in the Indonesian archipelago would take up the game. But in reality there are only 310 adult players spread across the 17,500 islands, plus a similar number of youth players.

In Hong Kong, we have more numbers playing, but then we have been running around in the paddock for longer too. Yet, despite having more than 7,000 registered players in town and 74 clubs – around 4,700 are in mini-rugby which has 20 clubs – we still struggle when it comes to fielding squads at the highest level.

And this situation is made even worse if our 15s and sevens programmes clash as it did last season when commitments to the HSBC Asian Five Nations as well as the London Sevens had to be met at the same time.

This season the issue was condensed even further with the sevens squad having to spread its resources fielding two teams for the China National Games as well as the first leg of the Asian Sevens Series in Kuala Lumpur, which fell on the same weekend in September. Winning a gold medal in Shenyang was top priority so a number of our best players including Rowan Varty, Anthony Haynes, Salom Yiu Kam-shing, Kwok Ka-chun and Alex McQueen were separated from the squad bound for Kuala Lumpur.

A gold medal at the mainland showpiece was deemed to be worth oodles of commendations at the Hong Kong Sports Institute, raise our cachet in government circles as well as raise the profile in the local media, where rugby is making a big push.

Sadly, a recalcitrant referee blew those hopes up in smoke as we lost a contentious semi-final to the host province Shenyang – where Hong Kong were penalised 24 times in a 14-minute match – and finished with a consolation bronze medal. To add to the pain, in Kuala Lumpur our squad went down 14-10 to Japan in the Cup final which ended with Hong Kong having six men on the park with skipper Jamie Hood in the sin-bin.

We can only imagine what might have been if we had been able to field a full-strength squad in Kuala Lumpur (forget about Shenyang for it seemed even if Hong Kong had DJ Forbes and a couple of his New Zealand sevens teammates we would still have lost).

Perhaps it might have been the difference between retaining the Asian crown which was grabbed back by Japan a fortnight ago at the Singapore Sevens.

Japan with 2.5 million registered players and more than 2,000 clubs, will always have the upper hand when it comes to player depth. They proved it in Singapore, calling up three players from their professional Top League, and they proved to be the difference as Hong Kong ran out of steam in the Cup final.

At the end of the day, rugby is a numbers game. The more players you have playing at the high end, the better the chances are for success. Despite the odds, Hong Kong is making a decent fist of it. But we need more – quality and quantity.