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Papua New Guinea’s inclusion in Cup of Nations all part of Hong Kong Rugby Union’s grand plan

Leigh Jones is hoping to get a good look at the new side and the Oceania style of rugby in general ahead of 2019 World Cup qualifying

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 November, 2016, 1:39pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 December, 2016, 4:28pm

At first glance, it would seem Papua New Guinea replacing Portugal in the Cup of Nations lowers the quality of the competition.

PNG are ranked 69th in the world, whereas Portugal, who competed in last year’s tournament, sit 29th.

On those statistics alone it would be fair to conclude that the competition is not as strong.

The move to bring in PNG appears to go against everything the Hong Kong Rugby Union has been working towards at a time when it is continually reiterating how important it is to be facing the best opposition possible.

But it’s not quite as simple as that and PNG, along with Russia and Zimbabwe, are taking part in the competition for a very good reason.

Just like every serious rugby nation, Hong Kong has their sights set on qualifying for the World Cup, whether that is in 2019 or, more likely, further down the track.

To get there in 2019, Hong Kong must win a four-team repechage tournament.

To reach that repechage, they must first finish behind only the already qualified Japan in the 2018 Asia Rugby Championship and then win a home and away fixture against the Oceania Cup champions of that year.

The winner of last year’s Oceania Cup was – you guessed it – PNG, hence their appearancein Hong Kong for the next week or so.

“It’s the way forward. We have had a taste of Europe, we have played Belgium in past years and Portugal, we know what to expect from Europe now,” said HKRU general manager of performance rugby Dai Rees.

“We have got no idea with Oceania at the moment. As a result of PNG being here we get knowledge of them.

“We can’t find any footage of them, we can’t find out a lot about them so what better than to bring them here and have a look at them and see what PNG and that Oceania region are about.”

On top of this, both Rees and Hong Kong coach Leigh Jones are confident that PNG will be no slouches, somewhat attributing their low rank to the fact they are starved of playing opportunities.

“I think the rankings can be misguiding sometimes,” Jones said. “If they are so lowly ranked, sometimes it’s because they haven’t played. It doesn’t mean to say they can’t play.”

Papua New Guinea’s addition to Cup of Nations can make ‘players more rounded’, says Hong Kong’s Leigh Jones

Russia and Zimbabwe are also here for similar reasons, with them or a team of similar standard from each of Europe and Africa to be waiting in the repechage, if Hong Kong make it.

Unfortunately, Zimbabwean rugby has taken a hit in the 12 months since they were last here, with funding cuts seeing the standard in the country drop away.

While Hong Kong defeated Zimbabwe 30-11 in 2015, it could be far more one-sided this time around.

Zimbabwe come to Hong Kong on the back of a winless effort in the Africa Cup that saw them relegated from the competition’s top tier.

On a positive note, Kenya are shaping up as a one of the African teams that could potentially be at the repechage and Hong Kong had a good look at them during August’s tour.

First-time Hong Kong captain Ed Rolston ready to write his own script after rugby intermission

So all in all, while Hong Kong are almost certain to be up against less opposition than they were in last year’s Cup of Nations, they are likely to be better placed to make a run for the next World Cup in Tokyo.

Whether they will be better as a team in the long run remains to be seen, but they are certainly leaving no stone unturned in a bid to fast track a World Cup berth.