Amateur days are over for HK's best
Three players handed professional contracts
Hong Kong has shed its veneer of amateurism with Rowan Varty, Mark Wright and Keith Robertson becoming full-time professionals.
The trio, all of whom have represented Hong Kong, have been handed one-season contracts by the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union for an undisclosed amount. Valley prop Alex Ng Wai-shing, a product of the rugby academy, has been given a junior contract.
'These guys are at the forefront of rugby in Hong Kong and we want to provide an environment where they can flourish,' said Ivan Torpey, HKRFU's head of performance.
First Division clubs have been paying overseas players for many years, but this is the first time the governing body will remunerate players.
'They are the first of what we hope will eventually be a bigger group of players. I believe this programme has the scope to expand,' Torpey said. 'Rugby is not part of the elite sport system at the Hong Kong Sports Institute. One day we hope to get there, but until then we have to provide a setting for our young players and provide them with a path.'
The HKRFU will also provide them with the opportunity to play at a high level in England, and find employment for other players if the opportunity arises.
Fullback Varty, last season's player-of-the-year, has put on hold his aim to become a lawyer and joined London Irish, while scrumhalf Wright has gone to Leicester.
'Rowan will train full-time with London Irish and to get game time, he will play for their First Division side Esher. Likewise Mark, who has joined Leicester and will play for Nottingham,' Torpey said.
Former England international Dusty Hare, now chief scout for Leicester, watched Wright play last weekend and had been really impressed, Torpey revealed. The pair will return to Hong Kong this weekend to join the sevens squad preparing for the Asian qualifiers for the 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens next month.
'We will call them up when we need them, but they will play mostly in England. They are among the elite here, but they will benefit from playing regularly at a higher level, week-in, week-out,' Torpey said.
While Varty and Wright have plenty of 15s experience, the 21-year-old Robertson is mainly regarded as a sevens specialist. The HKRFU wants him to impose his skills on 15s too and has asked him to turn out for DeA Tigers this season.
'Keith did not play 15s last season and we now want him to transfer his sevens skills on to the 15s paddock,' said Torpey. 'We also hope to link players like Keith, who is just out of university, with a company so his professional career can blossom.'
The HKRFU will closely monitor the progress of its contracted players before making any further commitments. But Torpey is confident professionalism is here to stay and the existing contracts will be renewed, along with new ones handed out.
'This is a long-term project. The players in our younger age groups can see what is happening to guys like Keith, Rowan and company and hopefully will want to emulate them,' Torpey said.