Hong Kong juniors tipped to make it a hat-trick of Asian titles in Singapore
U19s on course to qualify for World Rugby U20 Trophy for third time in a row
Hong Kong’s powerhouse junior Asian champions are expected to win their third straight U19s title in Singapore next week, and most pundits tip them to storm home in what is the regional qualifying tournament for next year’s World Rugby U20 Trophy.
In announcing its squad for the Asia Rugby U19s Championship at Singapore’s Yio Chu Kang rugby ground, the Hong Kong Rugby Union unveiled a strong mix of teen “veterans” and young stars of tomorrow, with 14 of the 25 squad members having been part of Hong Kong’s junior regional or international campaigns last year.
The winners of the Singapore tournament automatically qualify to represent Asia at Zimbabwe 2016 – next year’s edition of the World Rugby U20 Trophy – and having qualified as hosts for Hong Kong 2014 and in their own right for Portugal 2015 Hong Kong are on a roll.
Though they twice finished bottom in the eight-team global tournament, as defending regional champions Hong Kong are top seeds for next week’s three-match round-robin championship which also features Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Singapore.
The 25-man Hong Kong squad features 14 forwards and 11 backs and while youth is very much on their side, players such as Hugo Stiles, Liam Owens, Hugo Chui Ho-ching, John Markley, Matt Worley, Ron Siew and Ben Schats are all seasoned veterans at this level.
And Hong Kong U19 coach Peter Drewett, who previously coached the England U21s, expects them to provide solid leadership in the absence of lynchpins Calvin Hunter, Erick Kwok Pak-nga, Richie Lewis and Raef Morrison who moved on from the U19 set-up following the Lisbon tournament in April.
“That was a great group of players and they all went on to do well, which shows that our processes are working,” Drewett said of the HKRU’s performance and development programme.
“The lovely thing about age-grade rugby is that we get to focus as much on player development as on results. Our primary role is to help these players unlock their potential and advance to [HKRU] Premiership rugby and ultimately into the national team – and that seems to be working.
“Now this group will have their chance to impress and there are some good players with exciting potential coming through,” he added.
Among those building a Premiership or Premiership-A pedigree are several players from Bloomberg HK Scottish and Natixis HKFC – two clubs who have embraced the youth movement this season.
Hong Kong U19 squad members Alessandro Nardoni, Mark Coebergh and Austin Robertshaw all had run-outs for HK Scottish last Saturday against Societe General Valley, while Club’s Pierce Mackinlay-West and Callum McFeat-Smith both played against Borrelli Walsh USRC Tigers who included Ron Siew in their starting line-up.
Prop Ken Encarnacion and flanker Tang Cheuk-hang are also pushing their claim for top-tier places after being selected to attend a summer development camp hosted by Super Rugby’s Chiefs in New Zealand.
Encarnacion is learning from the masters at HK Scottish – playing behind four Hong Kong national 15s front-rowers in John Aikman, Jack Parfitt, Lachlan Chubb and Jamie Pincott – while Tang is advancing through the ranks at Sabre Kowloon.
In addition to the Premiership talent, four of the squad’s most experienced players are attending university or playing overseas – including Liam Owens (Edinburgh), Hugo Stiles (Bath) and James Christie (Northumbria) will joins the squad in Singapore along with Matt Worley who is currently on a one-year trial with French Top 14 giants Racing 92.
While Drewett hopes these players will step up to lead the less-experienced members of the squad he stressed there will be opportunities for all in Singapore over the three matches of the competition – Taiwan (13 December), Sri Lanka (16 December) and Singapore (19 December).
“With three matches in six days it is about all 25 players sharing the load. For us to do well everyone has to perform and that is how we are approaching it,” said Drewett, adding that while Hong Kong cruised to the regional title in 2014 they cannot mistake past results for present conditions.
“The coaches and the players realise the past is irrelevant. Teams can change dramatically at this level from one year to the next. Because of this our goal is to focus purely on our own processes and structures,” he said.
“But rugby is about winning things and it is important for us to reach the World Rugby U20 Trophy so we make no bones about that being our goal.
“Reaching competitions like the U20 Trophy is essential. It is one of the few chances where players at this level can understand what it is like to be in a truly competitive international environment.”
Drewett also he and the players not only want to win in Singapore, they want to win well.
“We’re looking to play with width and pace in attack and to be able to defend with width. Ultimately, we want to create an environment where the players play without fear,” he said.
“We need to get the basics right and have to win primary possession of course, but we also want to ensure that players have the opportunity to develop themselves irrespective of their jersey numbers.
“We know we have a big job to do, but it is the kind of expectation and pressure that we want to be involved in,” he added.
Hong Kong squad
Cheung Ho-yin (Kowloon), James Christie (Northumbria University), Hugo Chui Ho-ching (HKFC), Mark Coebergh (HK Scottish), Michael Earley (HK Scottish), Ken Encarnacion (HK Scottish), Thomas Gibb (HKCC), Oisin Harbitz (Valley), Jonathan Healy (HK Scottish), Alexander Horne (HKFC), Mak Kwai-chung (Tin Shui Wai), John Markley (Valley), Pierce Mackinlay-West (HKFC), Alessandro Nardoni (HK Scottish), Liam Owens (Edinburgh University/Valley), Cris Pierrepont (HKFC), Austin Robertshaw (HK Scottish), Ben Schats (USRC Tigers), Ron Siew (USRC Tigers), Callum McFeat-Smith (HKFC), Hugo Stiles (Bath University/Valley), Tang Cheuk-hang (Kowloon), Aidan Trent (USRC Tigers), Wong Chun-hei (Tai Po Dragons), Matt Worley (Racing 92/HKFC)
Hong Kong fixtures
- Sunday, 13 December: Hong Kong v Taiwan (14:30)
- Wednesday, 16 December: Hong Kong v Sri Lanka (14:30)
- Saturday, 19 December: Hong Kong v Singapore (16:30)
Note: Times are all HKT.