Unleashing their inner mongrel is key to success, says Anna Richards
Wrestling is one of many weapons Black Ferns legend is employing at HKSI to give women confidence and aggressive edge
On a Thursday morning at the Hong Kong Sports Institute, training takes an unusual diversion for the women's rugby sevens team as they substitute balls for wrestling mats, grappling with their teammates and forcing each other into submission.
It is a ploy to unleash the "inner mongrel" of her 19-strong women's squad, says elite women's sevens coach and Black Ferns legend Anna Richards.
"They're really fit and they're really nice, but", she pauses, "I want them to be not as nice.
"[Wrestling] is about getting them comfortable in the contact zone and more confident - if they're confident they'll perform a lot better."
It adds variation to their four-time-a-week training sessions, three gym workouts, multiple skills work and club games. They also swim and practise yoga.
"The way a girl carries herself and the way she performs on the field can make her seem bigger ... as long as you have the right technique, you'll be fine against any opponent," said Richards.
Building confidence has been top of Richards' priorities since joining the institute in January - a self-evaluation by the team revealed that most players under-ranked their performance compared to their coach's assessment.
"That's typical of women, though," said Richards, who has been coaching females in the sport for 15 years.
The opportunity to live and train full-time as professionals at the Hong Kong Sports Institute was but a dream for them nine months ago.
And without the Hong Kong men's and junior sevens rugby performance, the women, now ranked third in Asia, would not have been eligible for inclusion.
They are embracing the opportunity; 13 have accepted full-time contracts.
Ample resources are now at their disposal and they are more determined than ever to become number one in Asia, before setting their sights on qualifying for the Rio Olympics in 2016.
"I am living the dream," said Candy Cheng Tsz-ting, a centre.
"I always dreamed of being an athlete … when I used to work full-time, I used to dream of training, but then I would work until 6pm and the sky was already dark. I'd squeeze myself on the MTR, and training wouldn't finish until 10pm."
"Before, I didn't have time to think about recovery. I could only fit in training and the gym.
"Now it's totally different. I'm totally relaxed. You wake up so fresh, so full of energy and ready to do it again. Since August I've felt like this every day - I'm so happy."
Although the move meant giving up her career in property administration, 28-year-old Cheng pounced , and saved herself a two-and-a-half-hour daily round-trip commute from Quarry Bay to the team's base in Sha Tin.
"The sports science is really helping, too. Even if we have a minor injury, they put us in different recovery regimes to make our recovery faster," she says.
Scrum half Colleen Tjosvold mulled over the decision to quit her job as a teacher and move out of her family home before taking the plunge. She now shares a room with Lai Pou-fan, a fly half.
"At home I had my own room and was more independent," she explains. "I thought about it for a long time."
But the move has been worth it for the 24-year-old. "I'm more focused, and I definitely don't feel as tired as I did last year," she said. "There's been an improvement, for sure. We've really been able to focus on our skills and the detail."
"Some girls have decided not to go full-time as they are studying," said captain Royce Chan Leong-sze, who will make the move in the coming months, bringing the number of women living at the institute to six. Those still juggling work or study may be "missing out", she believes.
To manage both a professional rugby career and work or study "is stressful and requires a lot of time management".
Richards, who was drawn to coach in Hong Kong due to the institute's world-class facilities, believes the full-time commitment the girls are now able to give is essential. "You can't reach your potential without dedicating to it full-time," she said.
"Being an athlete … you need recovery, rest and good nutrition, otherwise you're never going to reach it. This is what [being at the Institute] has allowed the girls to do."
"I book a massage for half hour every day," said 24-year-old Lai. "And after training we have a sleep."
Consolidating the team has also been a way to bolster the team spirit.
"Now we high five after each session to motivate each other," said Lai. "We are each other's family. We see each other more than we see our own families."
"I'm so excited; I'm so jealous of them already," said the 35-year-old Chan, of her pending move, adding that the decision was not taken lightly.
"It was a really hard decision. I had put a lot of effort into my career [in property management] for the last seven years and my colleagues were really good to me."
The final motivator was to answer the question, "What if?"
"I didn't think an opportunity like this would happen again for me. Not every rugby player can have that type of offer. I want to push myself harder to see if we can achieve more."
Inspired by Richards, whose career in rugby spanned 20 years, Chan said: "She's given me another dream to extend my career.
"Before, because of my age, I thought I would only have a short time as a full-time athlete."
She has since taken up part-time coaching and is considering it as a career.
"Now everyone is really focused on what we want to achieve in rugby," which, says Chan, is a good result in the upcoming Asian Games with a view to then qualifying for Rio.
"We enjoy rugby even more now. It's gone from a hobby to being our dream to being our career," she said with a newfound confidence in herself. "It's hugely different."