Max Denmark eager to impress for Overseas Lions as New Year’s Day Youth Rugby Tournament turns 50

Featuring the most talented local boys and girls aged from under-12 to under-19, the competition is a vital tool in the Hong Kong Rugby Union’s bid to stop the talent drain

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 December, 2016, 5:43pm
UPDATED : Friday, 30 December, 2016, 10:30pm

Like many involved in the Hong Kong rugby fraternity, the annual New Year’s Day Youth Rugby Tournament at Hong Kong Football Club holds special meaning for Max Denmark.

This Sunday’s 50th-anniversary edition is set to be even more significant for the 17-year-old – who has been playing in the tournament since he was 13 – as he prepares to captain the Overseas Lions against the Hong Kong Dragons in the under-19 boy’s match.

“I didn’t really think that I was going to be captain but I’m happy that I am, it does mean quite a lot to me,” Denmark said.

“It’s a big thing because rugby in Hong Kong has gotten so much bigger recently. To be playing in the 50th iteration of this tournament is crazy, to think it has been going on that long.”

Denmark is currently studying at Millfield School in England and, back for the holidays, he is looking forward to playing with and against friends he has made throughout his rugby journey here in Hong Kong.

The back-rower played his junior rugby for HKFC before heading to Millfield 18 months ago and has progressed through the national age grades, most recently representing Hong Kong during their successful Asia Rugby U-19 Championship campaign only two weeks ago.

Denmark chose to study abroad with rugby in mind and, with only six months of study to go, he is ready to take his game to the next level.

“I want to try and stay in Hong Kong for a gap year and join the junior elite programme and play high level rugby for a year, which I think would help me improve massively,” he said.

“The only long-term goal I have is to play professional rugby and have that be my career, and what ever comes after that comes after that. That’s my priority.”

Having played alongside England and Wales under-18 players at Millfield, Denmark feels his UK stint has significantly helped his development.

“I hope it has, that was part of the reason I left, to try and get better at rugby,” he said.

“If it [playing with England and Wales juniors] hasn’t rubbed off, then what was the point of going?”

Denmark is one of many talented young Hong Kong rugby players that has opted to study overseas and the New Year’s Day tournament continues to grow in importance in terms of stopping that talent drain.

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According to HKRU player development manager Stephen Dowse, who is coaching the under-19 Lions, the tournament gives the union the perfect chance to engage with talent based outside of Hong Kong.

“The HKRU national age grade programme is player centred, competition supported and development driven with competitions such as the New Years Day tournament providing players a fantastic opportunity to compete with and against their peers,” he said.

“The tournament has grown year on year and for us to have this as a competition that supports what we are doing as a programme, it’s invaluable really.

“For us it’s important because we get to engage with the players again and talk to them about the opportunities there are now with the full-time sevens and 15s.”

For Dowse, the impact of the continued progression of the national age grade programme and the lure of potential full-time senior rugby is becoming more and more noticeable.

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”Some of the boys are now looking at school overseas but university in Hong Kong,” he said.

“We have seen in the last couple of years players committing to staying in Hong Kong for university and obviously guys from overseas looking at coming back as well.”

There are nine matches scheduled for Sunday, with the Dragons – made up of players based in Hong Kong – and the Lions – featuring local players studying overseas – also meeting in the under-19 girls and under-16 boys.

The other matches, starting as young as under-12, see Island take on Peninsula.