Fitness, power and strength – the key to Hong Kong being competitive in top-flight rugby
Coach Leigh Jones has a tough assignment first-up against Japan this Saturday and matching South Korea will be more in his sights in the Asian test series
A significant increase in fitness, power and strength is what it will take for Hong Kong to be consistently competitive against the best, according to coach Leigh Jones.
This is just one of the things that has become evident to Jones in his return to the Hong Kong coaching role after a stint in Japan as Eddie Jones’ assistant.
“We have talked about needing to be around 30 per cent fitter to compete with the likes of Japan and 45 or even 50 per cent fitter if we are going to be able to compete with the tier-one countries,” Jones said.
Speaking ahead of his side’s hit-out against Japan at HK Football Club this Saturday – Hong Kong’s first match in the 2016 Asia Rugby Championship – Jones admitted matching fellow ARC competitor South Korea was first in his sights.
The recently implemented elite rugby programme, Hong Kong’s first professional 15-a-side rugby platform, is in full swing but Jones is realistic about his squad’s progress.
“The whole programme is obviously going to help us,” Jones said. “We are still very early into that programme at the moment. I think realistically is going to take us 18 to 24 months before we really start to reap the rewards of that.”
Jones was full of praise for players’ response to the programme and is confident the initial increase in workload, coupled with the injection of new players, will see continued improvement.
“From my perspective we are six months into what is for me a two and-a-half-year project to our Rugby World Cup qualifying year [the 2017-18 season],” Jones said.
“We will make a lot of strides in that time. We will certainly become more professional as a group and that will be added to by the influx of players.
"We already have a number of guys on the scheme who will qualify in the coming six or 12 months.”
That’s not to say Hong Kong won’t take plenty of confidence into this weekend’s match against a Japan side missing a host of first-choice players due to Super Rugby and club commitments.
While Japan will still offer a stern test – they annihilated South Korea 85-0 last weekend – progress made by Hong Kong in the past six months should ensure a closer encounter.
“In terms of measurements, it was an interesting measurement from our November tests against the likes of Russia and Zimbabwe to the Chiefs [development squad] test the other week,” Jones said.
“There are already significant gains in terms of the amount of ground we are covering and how quickly we are covering that ground.
"We need to keep growing in these and other areas, so we can compete with these sides, as you probably saw against the Chiefs. We were in the hunt for about 60 minutes but then ran out of petrol.”
Hong Kong fell apart late in a 38-6 defeat against a University of Waikato Chiefs development squad on April 23.
But Jones, who has only dealt directly with a handful of Japan’s players, believes the match was the perfect warm-up. “It was a really good gauge for us,” Jones said.
“I said prior to that match that I think the level of opposition was going to be higher than anything we were going to meet in the ARC and I will stand by that. They asked us similar questions to those that Japan and Korea will pose in their different ways.”
This year’s ARC presents plenty of unknowns for Jones, despite his experience in Japan, with the Brave Blossoms fielding a new-look outfit and South Korea also set for change.
“The whole face of the competition has changed this year,” he said.
“[South] Korea has new coaches and we may catch them on the hop, or they may have learned from that game [against Japan] and go back to their tried and tested ways of Korea that we know.
"If they do that then it will be a tough day at the office for us [when Hong Kong play them]. It will depend a lot on their selection.”
The ARC sees Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea play a series of home-and-away matches until June 4.