Hong Kong to host Belgium ahead of World Cup qualifiers
Europeans will play two tests in city next month ahead of Asian Five Nations, which will double up as a cup qualifying tournament
Belgium will offer a "strong challenge" for Hong Kong in a two-test rugby union series in December, a build-up for next year's 2015 World Cup qualifying campaign.
The matches on December 17 (at King's Park) and December 21 (Hong Kong Football Club) against the higher-ranked Europeans will be an ideal stepping stone for Hong Kong, who will be aiming to finish at least second in next year's Asian Five Nations Top Five competition to keep their World Cup dreams alive.
"We could have gone for a lower-ranked nation, won those games and be lulled into a false sense of security. But instead we have picked Belgium, who are ranked above us and they will provide us with a strong challenge," said Leigh Jones, the Hong Kong 15s coach. "This will be ideal preparation before next year's Asian Five Nations."
Belgium are 25th in the IRB world rankings, three spots above Hong Kong. Last year, Belgium defeated Hong Kong 24-12 in the final of the four-team Emirates Airlines Cup of Nations (Econ). This tournament has been discontinued, resulting in the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union approaching Belgium for a home series.
"Belgium will turn up with a competitive side featuring many of their France-based players," said HKRFU chairman Trevor Gregory. "This is why the dates are in late December so that their players will be released from the clubs they play for in France."
Hong Kong won the inaugural Econ tournament in 2011 and last year finished runners-up to Belgium having beaten Zimbabwe 22-7 and hosts United Arab Emirates 51-6. The one-sided affair against the home team, who lost all their matches, and the fact that December is a peak time for the airline led to the title sponsors pulling out. "The ideal scenario would have been to have an eight-team tournament, one [group of four] with Hong Kong and the second with the UAE with teams closer to their ranking (97) so that there is not much disparity. The IRB is trying to create tournaments like Econ around the world so as to give countries more test matches. But this year we have had to cancel Econ, but hopefully it will be back in another form soon," Gregory said.
Apart from world rankings, the International Rugby Board has ranked all countries in different bands, beginning with high-performance 1 and 2 - New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England etc being in HP1, while Japan are in HP2 - followed by performance 1 and 2. Hong Kong and South Korea are the only Asian countries in P2, as are Belgium. The rest of the countries are listed in development 1, 2 and 3.
"The idea behind this is to rate all countries and try to raise their standards. The high-performance countries play between 10 to 20 tests a year and what the IRB wants to do is create a system whereby other countries also increase the number of tests they play every year," Gregory explained.
With the scheme is still being finalised - it will be up to countries to find sponsors - Hong Kong have arranged their own bilateral series with Belgium with the A5N starting in April. Japan, who have still to lose a match in the five-year history of the A5N, are raging favourites to win the automatic spot given to Asia at the 2015 World Cup, but the second-placed team will enter a repechage against other continental teams and this is Hong Kong's goal - to win a World Cup berth through the back door.