Hong Kong Sevens

Saved by the game

Scholarship set at-risk Sha Tin boy on path to learn sport in NZ and eventually play for Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 8:47am

As Hong Kong head coach Dai Rees tells it, "There is no off season in Hong Kong, rugby is a 365-day-a-year commitment."

The HKRFU is best known for its Sevens showcase, but beyond this is money put aside to build new pitches, the ongoing task of getting local children moving, Operation Breakthrough, an initiative for at-risk children and the scholarship programmes that set many on a very different path.

"'The HKRFU has changed my life," says Andy Yuen. "I work for them as national youth development officer, which means I coach new national players and girl's sides. I've been coaching the women's sevens team and the youth Asian team of girls and boys 16 to 17."

They say each journey begins with a single step, but in Yuen's case, it started with a flight to Auckland, and then a long drive. "When I was 16, via the union's Educational Trust, I was given a scholarship to attend Matamata College, near Hamilton in New Zealand. Rugby put me on the straight and narrow and gave me an outlet for my excessive energy. When I was nine, my mother recognised I had energy to burn and she joined me up for rugby for the Sha Tin Sha Pei team. "Moving to New Zealand was an absolute culture shock for the first six months. It is so different from Hong Kong and the life I'd experienced here. I did a home-stay and I am still in touch with my host family who helped me get over the homesickness. They taught me a lot. One thing was cooking. They said, 'OK Andy, if you take on some of the cooking we will keep your room clean for you'. I still don't cook Chinese food; I cook the western food I learnt in New Zealand."

One other thing that became second nature was the haka. "Like most New Zealand rugby-based schools, we had a haka. It's an incredibly powerful war cry and it gets in your soul," he said.

From life skills to rugby skills and beyond, on reflection Yuen considers this was the time that shaped him.

"Playing for the Hong Kong Sevens team was a dream come true. From the first day I played rugby when I was nine, I decided I wanted to play at the Hong Kong Sevens.

"So when this happened in 2006, it was an incredible realisation of a long-term wish and an emotional high point. It was like winning the lotto. Going out to the pitch and hearing the crowd roaring for the home team at the Sevens was an amazing moment in my life that I will always remember, especially every Sevens."

The year 2006 was a pivotal one for Yuen. "Everything came together in that year, and it was a real turning point. I not only played for the Hong Kong Sevens team as a forward, I got married and we had a baby. In between, I also represented Hong Kong in the Asian Games in Doha."

An offer of an interesting career sideline in modelling came up. "You play a certain role in rugby according to your position, and so it is with modelling. Some days you have to play a salesman, or a dad or a doctor in TV or print ads. I get recognised, especially when I'm coaching. It makes for a laugh."

Having grown up in a high-rise, then moving to New Zealand, it was no surprise Yuen opted for a new lifestyle in Sai Kung when he returned. "It's not entirely dissimilar to New Zealand. I love how quiet it is, and you can see a lot of wildlife, including whole families of wild pigs."

Rugby is a community and Sai Kung is also a community, so he feels he's living with double happiness. "In my neighbourhood, we'll often pool all of our barbecues together. It's easy for our two girls to ride their bike in the village. On weekends, I buy all kinds of seafood in the wet market - fish, squid and oysters - which I will cook up in a New Zealand way on the barbecue. In summer, we take the sampans to the beach. Or we'll hire a kayak and go out for a few hours."

Reflecting as he looks over the waterfront near his home Yuen seems a man who has found his place in life. "I don't know where my life would have ended up if I hadn't played rugby. I would never have gone to New Zealand; I may not have come to live in Sai Kung. I wouldn't be able to speak English and my job wouldn't be working with the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union."