Elite status training is starting to show
Total focus on rugby is making full-time players stronger, leaner and meaner
Very soon, there will be eight rugby players – four men and four women – prowling the halls of the hostel at the newly refurbished Hong Kong Sports Institute. The rest of the residential athletes from the 15 other elite sports better beware, you won’t want to be caught up in a dash for the showers with these rugby-types.
The government spent HK$1.8 billion as a peace offering for kicking the athletes out of this same venue in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics to provide an equestrian venue.
That amount of money will buy plenty of shower room and by all accounts the facilities at the Sports Institute are state of the art. Betty Mair, a former top sports official who was involved with the forerunner to the SI, the Jubilee Sports Centre, was left wide-eyed at the facilities our top athletes enjoy and even went as far as describing the gym as a “torture chamber”.
She was so impressed with all the “gadgets” and “machines” which the modern-day athlete uses to hone his or her body – apparatus which would have lit up the eyes of a medieval nail-puller or those masochists among you who want to go through the pain barrier in an attempt to buff your bodies. So yes, the eight full-time players who will soon walk through the doors need not worry about tackling the wushu upstarts in the run for the showers.
As the only team sport among the elite line-up, rugby sevens can expect to be initially treated like a sideshow. It will take some time for the 41 rugby athletes – 22 men and 19 women – to blend in. The 22 men are split into 15 full-timers and seven part-timers, while the women’s split is 11-8.
To be a full-time athlete, you first have to be good enough to be selected, and secondly, be able to commit yourself to 25 hours per week of supervised training.
Nick Hewson, one of the full-time male athletes, believes breathing the rarified air at the institute is already benefiting his game.
“Going full-time at the HKSI has been great for me personally and for the team,” says Hewson. “I have been able to work closely with professionals on a day-to-day basis and hone some of the little skills in which we would have limited time to do before.
“This has been made possible with specialist skill sessions and being able to do a more thorough strength programme. In essence, we now breathe, sleep and work rugby. It’s certainly a job we all enjoy.
“With this opportunity, we are already feeling the difference in our performance and skill sets. We have been able to focus entirely on rugby whilst being able to train to maximum levels and recover quicker, which ultimately makes us better on the park. Compared to before we had pressures of other work from full-time jobs which can have the effect of players being less focused.”
This total focus on rugby has certainly lifted the performance of the Valley forward, who looks leaner and meaner these days. He is even enjoying playing out-of-position as a lock in 15s rugby – we don’t want to highlight this too much, for the SI support system is mainly to help Hewson and company in their sevens game.
But then again the SI must know there is a close link between sevens and 15s. In fact, there are nine full-time athletes, Hewson included, who could find themselves being part of the international squad when Hong Kong take on Belgium in the two-test series in December.
Swapping between sevens and 15s will be a challenge but as far as Hewson is concerned his role is similar in both versions – winning ball in the contact area and providing a dynamic physical element at the breakdown.
Perhaps that dash for the showers might be good practice after all.