Tough challenges await ‘perfect man for the job’
Pressure on for new Hong Kong skipper Nick Hewson, but there’s good reason he ‘ticks all the boxes’
Hong Kong have a new captain – and considering the man, that’s a very good thing – but they will confront the same old problems as they look forward to next year’s HSBC Asian Five Nations campaign that will double as the regional qualifier for the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England.
Man-for-all-seasons – be it sevens or 15s – Nick Hewson has been given the responsibility of leading Hong Kong and he will face a baptism of fire in the two tests against Belgium later this month.
A full-time player at the Hong Kong Sports Institute, the WhichWay Valley blindside flanker was without question the correct choice for Hong Kong coach Leigh Jones when he decided it was time for a change as Tom McColl found it increasingly difficult to devote time to his rugby because of his day of job flying planes for Cathay Pacific.
Jones’ task was made easier by the fact that Hewson is an outstanding player. A key member of the Hong Kong sevens squad, Hewson has also shown his versatility playing in the second row for Valley.
No wonder that Jones described Hewson as a player who “ticks all the boxes” and is someone who commands the respect of his peers.
This is a vital ingredient for a leader. Not only must he be able to hold down his place in the side, he should be able to lead from the front. Talking a big game is meaningless if a player can’t back that up.
But will a new captain solve Hong Kong’s age-old problem – beating Japan.
That’s a big ask in Hong Kong’s comparatively tiny melting pot, and it is good that the brains trust has recognised this early on and is focusing on finishing second in the Top Five competition to ensure a berth in the repêchage for the World Cup.
It is a realistic approach. Hewson himself concedes that the goal is to finish second in the competition which also includes South Korea, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.
Japan have won the past six editions of the Asian Five Nations, remaining undefeated in the process. They have represented Asia at every World Cup and will grab the automatic berth next year, too.
So, surely, it is best to focus on a path to the repêchage.
But, still, this is not going to be easy. Standing in the way will be South Korea, who we have narrowly lost out on the last two occasions in the A5N. Last year, Hong Kong gave a strong showing while being beaten 43-22 in Ansan, despite being down to 13 men at one stage.
One thing going for Hong Kong will be that the tie next May will be at home. But even then nothing can be taken for granted. Two years ago, Korea edged Hong Kong 21-19 at Hong Kong Football Club with the match-winning try being scored right at the death.
Hewson didn’t feature last year as he was on duty with the sevens squad preparing for the London Sevens as Hong Kong attempted to win core-team status in the IRB Sevens World Series. That will not be the case next year as he and the rest of the sevens squad will be available.
The Christmas tests against Belgium will be the perfect build-up. The European visitors will pin their game around their forwards, an area Hong Kong couldn’t quite match last December when they lost to them 24-12 in the final of the now-defunct Emirates Airlines Cup of Nations in Dubai.
Yet playing against countries ranked higher than us – Belgium are 25 on the IRB rankings, four places above Hong Kong – is the way to go.
Coach Jones hopes Hong Kong can win at least one of the two upcoming tests and share the series, or better – an outcome that would infuse plenty of confidence as we look forward to the Asian Five Nations.
And if any man can lead Hong Kong to a standout performance in the coming weeks and beyond, that man is Nick Hewson.