Pandas find refuge in Tin Shui Wai
It's been described as the saddest town in Hong Kong, but a new rugby pitch with a home-based team bodes well for district
Will a new broom sweep well? Hong Kong Rugby Football Union officials hope so as their newest addition to the top end of the league, rb-ibi Tin Shui Wai Pandas, took the field yesterday on a new pitch purpose-built for the game in their district.
While all eyes will once again be focused in this new season on the Premiership competition - where Abacus Kowloon will be hoping to defend the title they won under controversial circumstances last season - the real deal is happening one rung below where an all-Asian side, mostly locals with a sprinkling of Koreans and Mongolians, will be starting an adventure that the union will be watching closely.
A lot is riding on these Pandas as the HKRFU's dream is that they will be the pioneers for district-based rugby teams in the future.
Tin Shui Wai is a pilot project for the HKRFU, which is trying to bring the game to the local population. If you ever wondered what the HKRFU did with all the millions it has pocketed from the Hong Kong Sevens, then just wander down to Tin Shui Wai, where a ground has been built to create a rugby-playing community in that district.
The HKRFU has injected HK$20 million into a pitch with floodlights. A further HK$3-4 million will be spent on providing a clubhouse but the priority has been to give the Pandas a home ground. It will hopefully be the first of many similar grounds in the New Territories. The official opening of the ground will be some time next month and the HKRFU hopes to invite district councillors from all over to have a look at this venue with its own team taking part in the Premiership A competition.
"Hopefully we will be able to get other districts to follow suit and offer us the land so we can build a pitch and create a team," says HKRFU chairman Trevor Gregory. He has set his eyes next on Sai Kung.
The land at Tin Shui Wai is on lease from the government, which is keen for the youth in the districts to take up sport.
The Pandas are not a new team. They are like a precious plant that has been transplanted into a bigger setting, one which will provide the right conditions for more growth.
The seeds of this team were in Operation Breakthrough , a juvenile crime prevention programme run by the police that initially involved boxing but which was expanded in 2003 to include rugby.
A partnership was forged between the police, the HKRFU and social services in Wong Tai Sin and Tin Shui Wai - two towns with huge public estates and high levels of juvenile delinquency.
Robbie McRobbie, a former policeman and now head of rugby operations at the HKRFU, has been one of the main architects behind Operation Breakthrough's rugby programme. "Rugby was a novel development in that none of the boys selected for the project had ever played the game or even held a rugby ball before, but by September 2004 they were able to form an under-16 team. The following year numbers had swollen to more than 40, and an U-18s team was added. Today, Breakthrough has more than 90 youngsters on the books, and fields teams in the Colts U-14, U-16 and U-19 leagues."
They have also contributed to the Pandas, a predominantly Chinese team that was the brainchild of Jung Ho-jung, a Korean who has been a long-time resident of Hong Kong and a true rugby fan.
Jung, a coach, had wanted to form a club that one day would play against the best in the top division. He approached the HKRFU and his plea was met with gusto by McRobbie, who pointed him in the direction of the Breakthrough boys. That was three years ago. Jung set up his own club with the kernel of players from Breakthrough and others from Tin Shui Wai and Wong Tai Sin. With the backing of the HKRFU, including plans to build a new home for the team, things got under way.
Last season, the Pandas - they took the name when they split from the police - did well in the lower leagues and made the move into the second grade, one below the elite division.
"A home pitch will be a huge boost for us," says Jung, who last season was named the HKRFU's development coach of the year. "Our aim is to one day be competitive at the top."
Build it and they will come is Jung's credo. This is his, and the HKRFU's, field of dreams.