Defending champions Hong Kong have named nine new caps for next month's Emirates Airline Cup of Nations (Econ) in Dubai as they go in hunt of a back division that will ensure Asia's number two team stay among the elite in the run-up to the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Among the crop of newcomers in the 28-strong squad named for test matches against Belgium, Zimbabwe and the United Arab Emirates are seven backs and two forwards, underlining the importance of unearthing fresh backline talent before next season's crowded calendar that includes crucial rugby sevens tournaments as well as the HSBC Asian Five Nations Top Five competition, which will serve as a pre-qualifying tournament for the 2015 World Cup.
The seven new backs are Chris McAdam, Craig Wilson, Hone Patrick, Sebastian Alfonsi, Stewart Megaw, Kirk Munro and Jonny Rees. The two forwards are Matt Stockdale and Matt Lamming. Kowloon flyhalf McAdam, a former England Academy player, and valley scrumhalf Munro will come under extra scrutiny as the selectors look at blooding a new halves combination.
"We need the new guys to put their hands up," said Dai Rees, the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union's head of performance. "This [Dubai] tournament is all about developing players against competition outside of Asia and it is going to be vital for us to get experience to stay in the Top Five in next year's Asian Five Nations so that we are on track for our goal of qualifying for the 2015 World Cup."
While the Asian World Cup qualifiers will be held in 2014, it is crucial that Hong Kong remain in the top flight at the end of next season's competition. To add pressure on selection and the small squad of players available, next year's sevens programme has taken on added importance with the London Sevens, which falls in the middle of the Asian Five Nations (15s), serving as a qualifier for core-team status. Hong Kong have already qualified to play at the London Sevens.
With all this in mind, only three players from this season's sevens squad who were crowned Asian champions have been included in the squad for Dubai. They are forward Nick Hewson and backs Tom McQueen and Salom Yiu Kam-shing.
"We have a lack of experience in the back row and the back three so we wanted to ensure that we had cover in these positions in Dubai to help bring along the new players," Rees said. "While the main target will be developing the new players, we want to win this tournament again."
Rees added: "All our sevens players will be available for the first match in the A5N next year, which is three weeks before the London Sevens; but I hope the new players will raise their hands as we don't to include the sevens guys for the game a week before going to London."
Hong Kong depart next Wednesday for Dubai.
HONG KONG SQUAD
Alex Baddeley, Alex Harris, Alex Ng, Charles French, Charles Cheung, Chris McAdam, Craig Wilson, Dan Watson, Guy Payn, Hone Patrick, Ian Ridgway, Jack Bennett, Jonny Rees, Kenneth Hsieh, Matt Lamming, Matt Stockdale, Mike Glancy, Pale Tauti, Sebaastien Alfonsi, Steve Nolan, Stewart Megaw, Terence Montgomery, Tom Bolland, Tom McColl, Tom McQueen, Nick Hewson, Salom Yiu Kam-shing, Kirk Munro.