Four new faces in Hong Kong squad in bid for Sevens World Series status
Three players from the elite programme for 15s players have been drafted into a 14-man squad, to be trimmed down to 12, for winner-takes-all qualifier
Hong Kong will present a new-look squad to the faithful as they face a winner-takes-all weekend – once again – at the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens.
Four first-timers at the game’s premier event were named in Gareth Baber’s 14-man squad on Friday, including three crossovers from the newly established Elite Rugby Programme (ERP) for 15s professionals.
It will likely be a baptism of fire for them, too, as the World Rugby Sevens Series Qualifier allows for only one team to progress into next season’s Sevens World Series.
“It’s tough but it always is ... now it always will be. That’s what you want,” said Baber after his squad was announced.
The ERP’s Toby Fenn, James Cunningham and and Ryan Meacheam, along with Jack Capon from the Sports Institute’s elite sevens programme, will be hoping to make Baber’s final cut down to 12 players for the Sevens, and to make their debuts at the event.
The final line-up will be known after the squad’s last serious hit-out in practice matches against England and Wales on Tuesday but both Fenn and Cunningham were part of the Hong Kong team who finished second at the recent Borneo Sevens, and impressed Baber with the physical side of their game.
The English-born Fenn was recruited from Singapore, while up until recently the Hong Kong-born Cunningham had been with National Rugby League outfit Manly Sea Eagles in Australia. New Zealand-born Meacheam, meanwhile, has history with the Waikato Sevens set up.
Fenn has dusted off a shoulder injury sustained under the tropical sun.
“I’m feeling brand new now,” he said. “It’s an awesome opportunity for me. Last time I was there was in the South Stand so I imagine it will be a little bit different, I suppose we can say. With me the job ahead is a bit of work rate in defence and being direct with the ball so I know what’s ahead of me.”
Max Woodward – captain for the second time at the Hong Kong Sevens and one of nine locally-born players in the squad – has slight concerns with a thigh strain picked up at that same event but said he was confident of being fit and raring to go.
“I got a bit of a knock in Borneo, a pull to my quad,” said Woodward. “It wasn’t as bad as I first thought so I am rehabbing it and getting fresh for Friday.
“I ran about today which was good. We’ve brought some 15s forwards in and that adds a bit of grit to our game, a toughness and that’s really important.”
Hong Kong have drawn it tough in their pool E alongside last year’s runner-up Zimbabwe, who found a bruising final against Russia just one game too many, as well as a rising German outfit and newcomers Cayman Islands.
Win through and the “reward” looks likely to be former Sevens World Series core side Spain or, yes, Japan.
It was winner takes all when the Japanese beat Hong Kong at the Asian Olympic qualifiers last November and it will be winner takes all once again when Hong Kong head to Monaco in June to fight – against 16 nations no less – for the final place in Rio.
Baber will tell you the best way for an emerging rugby nation to learn is through constant pressure so he’s getting his wish, at least.
“We’ve got a few players coming back from injury – such as Chris Maize – plus a few members of ERP who have impressed in the domestic leagues,” said Baber.
“We will just be looking to get ourselves into a position to top the group and get through to those quarter-finals.”
Hong Kong's 14-man squad: Jamie Hood (c), Michael Coverdale, James Cunningham, Toby Fenn, Lee Jones, Cado Lee Ka-to, Christopher Maize, Alex McQueen, Ryan Meacheam, Ben Rimene, Rowan Varty, Salom Yiu Kam-shing