Battling against the odds
The Hong Kong women's team are highly motivated and competitive but the brutal realities of life in this city are holding back their progress
Once the domain of diehard female fans, women's rugby has surged in popularity thanks to the addition of rugby sevens as an Olympic sport at the 2016 Games in Rio. But sevens - rugby's faster and more demanding younger brother - requires an altogether different athlete, and one which Hong Kong's limited pool of female talent is struggling to produce in step with international rivals.
"Sevens is a whole other beast, requiring speed, co-ordination and aggression," says Kane Jury, national player development manager and women's team coach.
"You have a very limited amount of time to get a lot of things done under pressure," he says, quickly adding: "That's what makes the game so special: it's physically and mentally taxing on the body and you get exposed so quickly and so often."
It is in these moments of exposure against battle-hardened opposition supported by extra resources that Jury believes his women fail to achieve the results they deserve.
"When our girls meet some of the tougher teams one on one, it's difficult to compete," he acknowledges.
Women's rugby has the full support of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union, with women on the same scholarship opportunities as the men. Responding to Olympic ambitions, the union established a women's sevens development squad. Those efforts are paying off with two rising talents - Melody Li and Ivy Kwong - named in a squad of 12 representing Hong Kong this week.
Opportunities at the Hong Kong Sports Institute may also see women, both senior and junior, eligible to train full-time at the institute.
But until Hong Kong sees such round-the-clock dedication to the sevens game, the Olympic dreams of these women will remain unfulfilled.
Li and Kwong are two such athletes who would consider full-time commitment to sevens to chase their dreams. "I'm so young now I might think of it if given the chance," says Li, 20, who is studying to be a PE teacher at Chinese University.
Meanwhile 24-year-old Kwong, who manages part-time work, part-time study and seemingly full-time training, would welcome extra support to hone her skills. But any full-time opportunity would need to be tempered against Kwong's responsibilities, she says. "The main priority is that I am able to take care of myself and support my family … I think [full-time training] is not suitable for a city like Hong Kong."
For now, efficiency and time management, are among the skills required to be a national sevens player. Hong Kong's team of impressively dedicated women tackle full-time work or study on top of gruelling training loads - gym sessions of 90 minutes in the morning, followed by a two-hour training session and weekend games are the norm.
"It's tough," laments Chrissy Gordon, one of the team's senior players and a full-time teacher. "We're still putting in just as many hours as [other teams], so it's not that we're at a disadvantage in that way - we just don't get as much recovery time."
During club rugby season, which runs from October to March, sevens players balance their club commitments with national duty in both forms of the game. "It's hard to balance," says Gordon, in her seventh year of representing Hong Kong in both sevens and 15s rugby. But it's worth it. "You get to travel a lot, meet a lot of people, the team is great and then there's the pride of representing Hong Kong."
This struggle to the pitch doesn't concern many of Hong Kong's rivals. By way of example, 16 women in the United States rugby sevens team were selected in February to train full-time at an Olympic facility. Australia, Japan and Canada also boast full-time female athletes in their squads, while China - with an excess of resources - is going from strength to strength.
"It is a matter of when, not if, they [China] become a major player in the women's sevens game," says Robbie McRobbie, head of rugby operations at the HKRFU.
And though Hong Kong boasts one of the leading teams in Asia, the differences full-time opportunities bring in rugby sevens are tangible. "When we played the Netherlands two years ago we beat them," says team captain Royce Chan Leong-sze. "But when the Dutch moved to full-time training, we lost against them last year. The game wasn't bad, but you can see a big improvement from them."
The lack of quality competition in Asia has also been a stumbling block for the development of women's rugby in the region for many years, says Ruth Mitchell, director of development at the HKRFU. "Our goal is to have as much competition as possible - and with the Asian Rugby Football Union creating more tournaments throughout Asia this is becoming a reality," she says.
Recent participation in the Asian Games, East Asian Games and Asian Youth Games has been a bonus. "These provide additional experience and exposure for our girls, and more incentive for the youngsters coming through," adds McRobbie.
At the end of the day, though, Hong Kong is a small place with a small pool of players. "We have a city to take from; others have a country," illustrates Gordon.
And those geographic limitations mean players balance commitments to essentially two sports - both 15s and sevens - as well as work and study.
To get the edge in sevens rugby in future, the union is concentrating on youth development, exploring full-time opportunities at the Sports Institute and hoping to capture talent from other sports as well.
Hong Kong sprinter Aggie Poon has previously represented Hong Kong in women's sevens but is injured. Touch football, a non-contact version of the sport, is another option.
In the meantime, the focus for Friday's competition for these Hong Kong women is to work together as a team to deliver the best results for the region.
"We know individually we're not the fastest or the most skilled, but if we play as a team we know we can be competitive," says Jury.