Hong Kong head to Borneo for first and only competitive run-out before the Sevens
The Hong Kong Rugby Union has named its first men’s sevens squad of 2016 for this weekend’s Borneo Sevens which represents the sole competitive warm-up event for the national team ahead of next month’s Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens.
The players have been in training at the Hong Kong Sports Institute since the end of last year’s Asian Series and the Asia Rugby Olympic qualifiers, but they have not played competitively since November.
“The timing is tight,” admitted coach Gareth Baber. “We’re desperate to play some quality opposition and I’m hoping that Borneo will provide that.”
Last year Hong Kong took part in a cross-regional tournament, which was played alongside the Borneo Sevens and offered international opposition such as Tonga and Papua New Guinea.
That event has since been cancelled but Baber remains confident his side will benefit from playing the regular Borneo Sevens which draws club sides from New Zealand, Australia and Fiji.
“We saw the club competition [last year] and it’s a good tournament with strong teams,” said Baber.
“It should provide us with the chance to play teams with different styles. The Fijians play differently to the Kiwi and Aussie teams … and that experience will be very helpful when we come up against similar circumstances during the [Hong Kong Sevens] Qualifier.
“Our objectives are to squeeze as much out of this weekend as we can and re-immerse ourselves into a high-intensity environment, particularly that physical element of tournament play, with three hard matches on day one and the need to do it all again on day two.”
The players’ workload will be ramped up ahead of their first fully international hit-out of the season at Hong Kong Stadium from 8-10 April, and Borneo will be followed by an intensive three-week training camp at the HKSI.
Hong Kong have been drawn into a relatively easy pool for the Sevens, alongside last year’s losing finalists Zimbabwe, Germany, and the Cayman Islands who are appearing for the first time.
But Baber said this year’s 12-team HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series Qualifier – which offers the winners promotion to the 2016-17 international circuit – has only grown more difficult in the 12 months since Hong Kong were knocked out of the quarter-finals by eventual winners Russia.
“The quality of the teams in the Qualifier has risen yet again,” he said. “Spain, Tonga, Japan, Germany, Papua New Guinea and Zimbabwe are all very strong.
“There are five or six teams in the mix next month and a number of them have much more experience than us on the international circuit, either this season or in the recent past.”
Japan played full-time on the circuit in 2014-15 and have competed in four World Series tournaments this season, including Las Vegas in early March when they reached the Plate final.
Zimbabwe and Olympic Games hosts Brazil have both played one World Series tournament this season, and Spain competed as a core team on tour for five seasons until they were relegated at the end of 2013-14.
The experience gained by these sides only makes Hong Kong’s bid for promotion that much harder in 2016, but Baber has been able to call up a strong squad for Borneo and the Hong Kong Sevens run-in with veterans Rowan Varty, Alex McQueen, Salom Yiu Kam-shing and Jamie Hood all fit and available.
Emerging performance players also feature in the squad with Jack Capon and Michael Coverdale selected alongside young captain Max Woodard, while Calvin Hunter and Chris Maize are recovering from minor injuries and were not included for Borneo.
Baber will have Lee Jones back in action this weekend after the hard-hitting New Zealander was finally passed fit for an injury dating back to last year’s Sevens.
“It’s great to have Lee back. We’ve worked a lot with him at the HKSI to get his injury issues sorted out and he has put in a massive amount of time and effort into his recovery. I’m pleased that he will get another opportunity this weekend,” said Baber.
The squad will be without try-scoring threat Tom McQueen and grafting forward Mark Wright, both of whom are out of the Hong Kong Sevens campaign with shoulder injuries, but two players better known for their skills as 15-a-side flankers have been included.
“James Cunningham [from Kowloon] and Toby Fenn [from Valley] have been training with us for the past five weeks. We selected them both with a view to having a good look at how they perform in our environment and to see how they can develop further.
“While they’re definitely in the frame for the Qualifier, their selection is part of our longer-term development goal to include players from the 15s environment,” said Baber.
“With only 21 senior players in the HKSI programme we need to develop depth in Hong Kong wherever it is. We’ve already seen the results of this in terms of the number of young players we’ve unearthed in the past two seasons.
“We’re taking advantage of the growing quality in the Hong Kong domestic league. Bringing players like James and Toby into the squad will help push the athletes in the HKSI programme that much more, as we strive to maintain an environment where the battle for places is highly competitive,” he added.
Hong Kong squad (Borneo Sevens, 19-20 March)
Max Woodward (c), Rowan Varty, Jamie Hood, Salom Yiu Kam-shing, Ben Rimene, Lee Jones, Cado Lee Ka-to, Alex McQueen, Jack Capon, Michael Coverdale, James Cunningham, Toby Fenn