When close friends make midfield magic
Jake Phelps and Lloyd Jones will be a key pairing for Hong Kong in the winner-takes-all clash in Japan
Bad hamstrings and knowing each other's sleeping patterns have helped forge one of the best midfield combinations for Hong Kong in many years, but Jake Phelps and Lloyd Jones admit the real test will come on Sunday when they face Japan in the winners-take-all Asian Five Nations finale in Tokyo.
Australians Phelps, 27, and Jones, 30, have sizzled this season ever since the latter became eligible and joined his former Sydney Easts team-mate Phelps as the centre pairing for Hong Kong in the Asian Five Nations. The duo haven't tasted defeat playing together for Hong Kong and have been largely credited with helping the side stand one game away from a berth in the 2015 World Cup.
Dreams aside, the Hong Kong Football Club duo have their feet firmly planted on terra firma and acknowledge the Tokyo clash will be Godzilla-like, with Japan overwhelming favourites to clinch their accustomed berth and represent Asia at the World Cup.
"Japan is the real test," says Phelps. "It's a gauge to see where we are as a team and not just individuals. We have nothing to lose and in terms of pressure we are the underdogs. But I will be playing to win like always, and anything but a win is a failure."
Jones said: "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the result of hours of work on the field, in the gym and in the office. It's a privilege and honour to be given this opportunity so I'll be treating it exactly like that."
Inside centre Phelps and outside centre Jones both work in the finance industry. They knew each other in passing back home in Sydney but forged a close bond only after coming to Hong Kong.
"Jake and I have played together for HKFC for three years since I moved up here in 2011. We played for the same club back in Sydney, at Easts Rugby Union Club, but unfortunately he was always injured. He was probably one of the most talented but unlucky juniors out of school. We didn't play that many games together as I was always playing and he was always running my water," laughed Jones.
The oft-heard jest at the Sports Road club is that Phelps and Jones are an item, and if they are on their own, they are greeted with cries of "where's your wife?". Jones, who played for NSW Waratahs as well as Australia under-19s and under-21s, agrees they are inseparable.
"We are close. I pretty much spend my entire life outside of work with him and his lovely wife Emma, so I guess it helps when you know his sleeping patterns, let alone his love to dummy and go himself in attack," Jones said.
"I guess it's grown from a liking of the guy as a person. We have got similar passions in life so it's just natural on the field when your best mate makes a break you kind of want to catch up to him to keep him company. I guess that's called 'support'."
Phelps, who arrived six months before Jones in 2010 and thus qualified to play for Hong Kong earlier under the IRB's three-year residency rule, used to play alongside Wallaby fullback Kurtley Beale in high school at St Joseph's College. He says playing alongside Jones has been a natural fit.
"In terms of playing, we are very similar. Both have equally bad hamstrings so I guess we just know each other's strengths and weaknesses, which allows us to complement each other," Phelps said. "We both work in finance and I guess our passion for both finance and rugby helped us bond."
This almost intuitive connection has benefited Hong Kong, with head coach Leigh Jones having nothing but praise for his centres who, he says, have spread enthusiasm through the squad.
"They have been absolutely magnificent in attack and defence and brought another dimension to the team. We wouldn't have disposed of South Korea so effectively if not for them," Jones said.
"But the best thing is that coming up against Japan is something new to them. They don't have a history of having played Japan and are looking forward to the match with an excitement which has rubbed off on the rest and created an infectious buzz in the squad."
Phelps and Jones will face their sternest test as rugby players on Sunday and if their midfield defence holds, half the battle may be won.
"I was lucky enough to play them at the U19 World Cup in Durban, but I know this will be a completely different game," Jones said.
"We are not really focusing on them too much as these big games will be all about how we defend internally and so I'm just focused on doing my job for the team and then the scoreboard will take care of itself."
His partner agrees.
"Defending will be as much mental as physical and if we show any weakness [Japan] will look to capitalise. They have individually good players but I guess as a collective unit we are a decent chance."