Fresh talent: new faces boost Hong Kong’s physical force for Cup of Nations
Stand-out Premiership performers and many returning after completing education abroad are among those chosen to make debut in tournament starting Friday
Hong Kong have 12 new caps in their squad for the week-long Cup of Nations test series with Russia, Zimbabwe and Portugal.
Hot on the heels of the Asia Rugby Sevens Qualifiers-Hong Kong for the 2016 Olympics, the Cup of Nations will see double-headers of top 15s rugby at the Hong Kong Football Club, starting on Friday when Hong Kong face off against Zimbabwe and Portugal play Russia.
Hong Kong enter the tournament as the second highest-ranked side competing - 24th in the world, two spots off Russia's 22 and ahead of Zimbabwe (26) and Portugal (28).
Hong Kong coach Andrew Hall said: "I think what we are seeing is a product of our enhanced commitment to the next four-year cycle in terms of qualification for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
"After last year's Asian championship we had some natural attrition with a couple of retirements and guys who have moved on. The majority of players we have included in the training squad are those we are counting on to be here four years hence, when we aim to qualify for Rugby World Cup 2019," Hall said.
Among the new caps are several players returning to Hong Kong after completing their education, as well as some standout performers from the HKRU domestic league, who have become eligible through residency after playing in the HKRU Premiership for three years."Each of our opponents has a vastly different style, some of which we know well from past experience with matches against Russia and Zimbabwe. There are differences in all three of the opponents, but the one overriding factor is that they all have that physicality, which we will need to counter," Hall said.
Hall believes that the new additions will bolster an already enhanced physical presence for his team on the pitch. Among the potential first caps in the squad are a trio of returning players in front-rowers Jamie Tsang and Adam Fullgrabe and back-rower James Cunningham. All three of them are playing for Sabre Kowloon in this season's domestic competition.
Fullgrabe previously represented Hong Kong at age-grade levels and also played for Eastern Suburbs in the Sydney Premiership, while Tsang previously played for Hong Kong Cricket Club in the top flight before leaving to continue his education at Worcester University.
Cunningham brings some strong professional experience to the set-up after playing rugby league for Manly and playing in Australia's National Rugby [Union] Championship.
Valley flanker Nick Hewson will again captain the squad, joined by standouts Matt Lamming (HKCC) and Toby Fenn (Valley) in the back row.
"Size-wise, we're in one of the better positions we've been in for a few seasons. This is potentially one of the bigger packs we have been able to field. Our depth is really improving," Hall added.The influx of players has also seen a new wave of promising backs emerge.
With selection for the first test looming, Hall is intent on achieving multiple targets from this year's Cup of Nations.
"This tournament is hugely important, but not just for us, also for our opponents. World Rugby needs a strong competition like this, so tier two and tier three unions can further enhance their performance and vie for Rugby World Cup spots," he said.