Hong Kong national 15s side is going pro under new HKRU initiative
Move means governing body now has professional teams in both sevens and 15s
Hong Kong’s men’s 15-a-side rugby team is going professional under a new initiative from the Hong Kong Rugby Union.
The multi-million-dollar Elite Rugby Programme (ERP), the first fully professional 15-a-side rugby platform in Hong Kong history, will be housed at a state-of-the-art centre at the Technological and Higher Education Institute of Hong Kong (THEi) in Kowloon Tong.
Leigh Jones, Eddie Jones’ assistant with Japan at last year’s Rugby World Cup, will lead the team as head coach.
“The ERP is designed to further strengthen our domestic leagues, which will also enhance the standard of our national teams,” said Dai Rees, HKRU general manager of performance rugby.
“The programme will also help us retain and develop younger players and incentivise players to return to Hong Kong after university by demonstrating that there is now a career path for them in rugby.”
The programme will see players paid on a full-time basis, subject to annual reviews to benchmark their progress and potential.
Thirty-five to 40 senior and junior players will be centrally contracted on multi-year terms, but will be allowed 12 hours per week for outside employment or work experience.
“The partnership has allowed us to bring back Leigh Jones from his time coaching Japan, and on the back of their most successful Rugby World Cup ever, which included the biggest upset in Rugby World Cup history when Japan beat South Africa,” Rees added.
Jones left Hong Kong to join the Japan coaching team in 2014. He will lead the 15s, while Gareth Baber continues in charge of the sevens programme at the Hong Kong Sports Institute, where 42 players are in residence.
The purpose-built 4,136 square-foot facility at the THEi will has state-of-the-art facilities including a gymnasium, a rehabilitation and physiotherapy suite, an indoor pitch space and administrative offices.
“The partnership with the Technological and Higher Education Institute is an ideal fit,” said HKRU chairman Pieter Schats.
“THEi’s Sports and Recreation department is truly world class and the new facility is an important addition to our resources as it comes at a great time for us given Hong Kong Rugby’s rapid growth.
“This premier facility will provide a tremendous boost to the HKRU domestic league and will also be used by many of our nationals squads, including the women’s 15 and our National Age Grade teams, as Hong Kong builds up for upcoming qualification campaigns for competitions like the Rugby World Cup, Women’s Rugby World Cup and the World Rugby Under 20 Trophy.”
Jones was excited about the prospects for the programme and the set-up at the ERTC saying, “the collaboration with THEi has been fantastic. They are superb in facilitating our requests and we look forward to utilising the scientific expertise at the Institute across our performance measurement and analysis programmes.”
Jones will resume his prior role as head coach of the Hong Kong national team. Andy Hall, interim coach after Jones’s departure, returns to his full-time role as Head of Elite Player Development for the HKRU and will also resume his previous position as one of Jones’s senior coaches. Baber will step down from his coaching role with the 15s to focus full-time on the sevens programme at the HKSI.
Jones has supplemented his coaching team with the appointment of Mark Fatialofa as an HKRU Elite XVs performance coach with responsibility as a Backs/Skills coach. Fatialofa comes with a high pedigree after representing Samoa in both 7s and 15s, including playing here in the Rugby World Cup Sevens in 1997. He played over 250 games in the English Championship with Exeter and Cornish Pirates.
With full-time players now contracted for both fifteens and sevens, greater integration between the two elite player programmes at the HKRU is envisioned.
Baber said: “With the ERP, we will see more sharing between the two programmes, which is a net positive for both groups. We’ve always had a lot of interaction, but the ERP now offers us the ability to bring in 15s players who are also full-time professionals, with the equivalent fitness and performance levels that go hand in hand with that professional status.
“Alongside the HKSI, we now have full-time players in 15s and can make use of that talent to support our ability to fight both corners.”
Hong Kong eligibility is not a pre-requisite though the vast majority of players will be eligible. Elite local league players such as Hong Kong Cricket Club’s Ben Roberts and Valley’s Matthew Rosslee have already been engaged in the programme as they advance towards Hong Kong eligibility.
Other players in the programme include Alex Ng Wai-shing (Valley), Charles Cheung Ho-ning (HK Scottish), Jamie Tsang (Kowloon) and Lee Jung Sing (USRC Tigers) and Niall Rowark (Hong Kong Football Club).
The programme is also open to Junior scholarship players who must be over 18 and working or studying full-time in Hong Kong. Scholarship players must also have previously represented Hong Kong at National Age Grade level and maintain an active affiliation with one of Hong Kong’s six Premiership clubs.