Plucked from the athletics field, teenager Tsoi finds cross-cultural calling in rugby
Dubbed a stand-out character, teenager determined to present another ‘local face’ to booming rugby scene
Just over a year ago, Sam Tsoi Kin-san was busy practising his shot put and discus ahead of the interschool games.
The Diocesan Boys’ School (DBS) senior caught the eye of Hong Kong Rugby Union (HKRU) development coach “Sailo” Lai Yiu-pang, who drafted Tsoi into last year’s New Year’s Day Youth Rugby Tournament, a showcase for up and coming players.
“I was doing athletics for years,” said 18-year-old Tsoi, fresh off a narrow loss at this year’s U19 boys edition of the tournament at Hong Kong Football Club on Monday.
“I was putting in a lot of effort, but it was going nowhere. Sailo approached me after interschool, and that’s how I got started with rugby.”
A year on and Tsoi is knocking on several doors. Now a mainstay at premiership team Kowloon Rugby Football Club, the versatile forward featured in the Hong Kong U20 squad’s campaign in Uruguay last year and had a hand in Hong Kong’s fifth straight World Rugby Junior Trophy qualification last month.
Despite the rapid ascension, Tsoi already has an agenda to push.
“I don’t see a lot of local faces in rugby right now, ” he said. “I want to be a regular, but I hope I’m not someone they put in just because they want to include local players – because I’m Asian.”
Having studied both locally and abroad, Tsoi has learned to embrace the dual culture in the ever-rising sport of rugby.
“It’s hard [to balance], but I’m a bit better with English than other local players. I understand the culture a bit more, but I hope to stay local, just like [senior national player] Salom [Yiu Kam-shing] has his local player identity.
“Rugby is my thing now and I just want to make a living off of it,” said Tsoi.
“The brotherhood, the respect you see in rugby … it’s a complete sport. You need strength, speed, skills, everything. It’s so different to other sports, many of which [encourage] one-trick ponies.”
Much like 29-year-old local poster boy Yiu, who only picked up a rugby ball at the age of 18, Tsoi is a relatively late bloomer in rugby. Fortunately, his raw athletic ability has allowed him to grow by leaps and bounds.
“My school coach always emphasised athletic ability, not strength. It was a lot of training muscles people wouldn’t normally work on and that has helped me in rugby.
“I’m a bit faster than your normal forward, stronger compared to other Hong Kong players.
“I like any forward position aside from the front row,” said Tsoi, who transitioned between flanker, lock and number eight for the Hong Kong Dragons on New Year’s Day. “I’m so new to the sport and I have a lot more to learn – I hope to be versatile.”
The beauty lies in Tsoi’s raw ability, as HKRU development coach Stephen Dowes explained.
“He’s quite a raw player,” said Dowes, who watched Tsoi soar through the union’s Warriors rugby programme within a year. “He’s not afraid to put his head where it hurts, so we’re excited about him.
“He’s coming from an athletics background and doesn’t have much experience, but has already been to the World Trophy. He has found a sport that suits him and is a real stand-out character.”
Dowes, along with colleagues and senior team coaches Leigh Jones and Paul John, watched on as the city’s most promising youngsters took to Hong Kong Football Club for the 51st New Year’s Day tournament.
With talent such as Thaddeus Summers – named the best and fairest player of the tournament – and Lara Schats (MVP in the Ladies U19 game) these are encouraging times for Hong Kong rugby.
“There’s a buzz around Hong Kong rugby at the minute,” said Dowes. “The women qualifying for the World Cup [last year], the boys with their world rugby qualification, the sevens have qualified for the World Cup … year on year, we see more players no matter the age group.
“This is a great time to look at local guys, but the talent identification is not in isolation. We find these guys throughout the year – local and overseas – and our development team pushes them into the national pathway.
“If you look at the next two years, it’s huge for Hong Kong rugby. You don’t need to go overseas to get a good rugby reputation – you can get that here.”