Thrown to the Lions
Hong Kong success story Rowan Varty is living the dream as he prepares to play in front of his home fans for the Barbarians on their Asian tour
Rowan Varty spent the long flight from Hong Kong to London on Wednesday reflecting on his career which in a few days will reach its apogee when he turns out in front of his home fans for the Barbarians against the British and Irish Lions.
It is a journey that encapsulates and underlines the very essence of Hong Kong rugby - from the time this city was still struggling to shake off its colonial blues and adapt to its post-handover realities, a time when a conscious decision was taken to nurture homegrown talent.
In the good old days, you turned up and if you were good enough, you soon found yourself drafted into the Hong Kong squad. In fact, any number of squaddies, from Stanley Fort to then Sek Kong (today known as Shek Kong), were called up for "national" duty, some just hours after touching down at Kai Tak.
One famous name was Dan Daly, a soldier who turned up just a couple of days before the 1987 Hong Kong Sevens, was picked and then went on to win the Best-and-Fairest Player award.
In 1987, Varty was just a year old. Born in England, he soon found himself in Hong Kong as a kid kicking a rugby ball on a Sunday at King's Park. His "Once upon a time" starts soon after.
"I got into rugby by going to the Hong Kong Sevens. My parents were, and still are, big fans of the Sevens, and a friend and I wanted to be part of the mini-rugby festival that takes place first thing in the morning. So we signed up," relates Varty.
Mini-rugby might be a welcome distraction to the public at large. But for the children, it was as if they were playing at Twickenham. Even later, when Varty had progressed from Kai Tak Tigers (now DeA Tigers) and through the age groups to play in the youth exhibition game as a prelude to the action at Hong Kong Stadium, it was the big event for him and his mates.
"That was the highlight of the season. I remember, we would all go to one of our friend's houses and clean our boots in anticipation of playing at the Sevens. Only later did we realise that only the parents of the kids watch."
That will hardly be the case on June 1 when Varty runs out at Hong Kong Stadium in the famous colours of the Barbarians, but wearing his DeA Tigers stockings. All eyes will be on him - the first Hong Kong player to represent the storied team. And what's more, he will be facing an even more renowned side, appearing for the first time in Hong Kong.
As a teenager, that would have been the last thing on his wish list - playing for the Barbarians. What was top of the list was to represent Hong Kong at the Hong Kong Sevens (he has now played eight times).
When Varty first came onto the scene, the national team were dominated by players who had been transplanted into Hong Kong through work and career commitments. Hong Kong had already seen its first Chinese players, Chan Fuk-ping and later Ricky Cheuk Ming-yin, fly the homegrown standard.
Varty added his name to this group. Although born in England, he learned the game in Hong Kong, from mini-rugby and school, to national level. And one of his first big assignments was being picked for the 2005 Rugby World Cup Sevens in Hong Kong.
"That was my first big tournament for Hong Kong. I remember playing with the likes of Chris Gordon, Nigel D'Acre and Andy Chambers; they were my heroes when I was watching from the upper West Stand. I looked up to them and then there was Dingles [Paul Dingley] and Gibbsy [Alex Gibbs].
"The team was full of huge characters and we took our preparation very seriously, and nothing has changed in that respect. But the stories I heard about the Hong Kong team a generation before suggests they had a lot more fun on tour than we do now."
It was a different time then, as Varty readily admits. "Back then there were guys who came to Hong Kong as good rugby players and stuck around long enough to call it home. They were very proud to call it home. These days we have a squad made of guys who were born in Hong Kong or have learnt their rugby here, and I would like to say that we are a good advertisement for the quality of Hong Kong rugby."
No one can fault that assessment. For the past couple of years, Hong Kong have been knocking on the door of becoming a core team in the HSBC Sevens World Series, both times failing narrowly. And the fact that more than half the squad are qualified to play in the Asian Games - it has the most stringent eligibility rules - says a lot.
"I remember it used to be a struggle to field a squad with three Asian Games-qualified players - either born in Hong Kong or with parents of Asian origin. But today you would struggle to do it the other way round."
Varty is over the moon at being the "face" of Hong Kong rugby on such a momentous occasion. Already the hype and hoopla is in overdrive as he carries the weight of a city on his shoulders. He hopes his presence on the field will inspire the next generation as he once was inspired by the likes of former Hong Kong captain Gordon.
"What I would like to see is for more kids to take up rugby, even switching over from other sports if need be," says Varty, pointing to teammate Salom Yiu Kam-shing as a sound example of what a little bit of peeping out of the box can do to a career.
"Salom was a sprinter, but he wasn't going far so he took up rugby. Now he is in a team who are the best in Asia and he is an Asian Games silver medallist and looking forward to taking part in the Rio Olympics.
"We need more guys like Salom to take up rugby as a fun pastime, but also seriously, especially now that [with Hong Kong Sports Institute funding] it can be a realistic career opportunity.
"Forget that it's me playing for a second, the fact that the Barbarians went to the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union and said, 'OK, let's have one of yours' is a significant nod of approval from the highest level of the sport."
As a winger, Varty is under no illusion and graciously acknowledges that the HKRFU could have put forward any number of names - players like Salom, or the McQueen brothers Tom and Alex.
In 2008, he was invited by British touring side Penguins to play at the Rome Sevens. That honour has been eclipsed by the Barbarians invitation.
Varty flew from Hong Kong to London to join the squad preparing for the first of two games against England at Twickenham (early this morning Hong Kong time). He was revisiting the famous turf, which he had trod just a couple of weeks ago at the London Sevens where his debut appearance ended in disappointment yet again.
"There was a lot of hype surrounding London and ultimately we failed, but in coming away from a tournament having beaten Scotland and being disappointed shows how far we have come." That insatiable appetite for success is what drives Varty so far that he is seriously thinking about taking a break from his budding career as a solicitor to devote his energies full time to rugby sevens. The Olympics in 2016 can be a powerful magnet for a man who has ticked all the boxes for Hong Kong rugby - and more.
The Baa-Baas offers him a fresh challenge. It will keep him rejuvenated, especially knowing he is the flagbearer for the local game.
"This is all about flying the flag in Hong Kong. I hope my presence out there will inspire someone, just like I was inspired many years ago."