Back to the future
It's a role reversal at its best. Hong Kong will warm up for the East Asian Games and the Asian Games by taking on the world's best this weekend.
It is very rare that any local rugby event can overshadow the Hong Kong Sevens in importance for the players. But the East Asian Games in Hong Kong in December and next year's Asian Games in Guangzhou are the two main targets.
As warm-ups go, it won't come any tougher than games against Argentina, Portugal and Tonga in the preliminary round today and tomorrow. When you target Tonga as the game to win, as Hong Kong have done, then you realise this is truly a hard group.
'It is a difficult pool. Both Argentina and Portugal did very well at the World Cup and will be hard opponents,' said new Hong Kong captain Mark Wright. 'Tonga haven't been playing well recently, and hopefully we can get a good result. But we will be trying to win every game.'
The two quadrennial Games are multi-sports events. While rugby sevens has been part of the Asian Games since Bangkok in 1998, it will be the first time the abbreviated game will be on show at the smaller East Asian Games.
And the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union has set its heart on becoming the first team sport in town to win a medal of any kind at both Games. Hong Kong have failed on the past three occasions at the Asian Games. But there are high hopes this squad can lift a medal alongside powerhouses Japan and South Korea. Optimism is high in the Hong Kong camp as 10 of the 12 players are Asian Games qualified (John Gbenda-Charles and Mark Goosen are ineligible). And they are all in the team purely on merit. The days when Hong Kong was mainly represented by rugby journeymen are long gone.
Sevens coach Rodney McIntosh has already shown how much importance he is placing on the two Games by easing out injured skipper Andrew Chambers from the team who played at the World Cup.
'This is an opportunity to inject some new blood, especially with these two Games coming up,' McIntosh said.
Chambers has been replaced by teenager Ed Rolston, who joins the nine other players who are either Hong Kong-born or of Asian parentage, and qualify for both Games.
While Games medals are the main target, McIntosh is also hoping to catch the eye of the International Rugby Board and win a place in other tournaments to improve exposure to top-level play.
McIntosh believes the World Cup adventure in Dubai helped in highlighting the shortcomings in the team - for example, that mercurial Keith Robertson was best used at scrumhalf.
'Keith is a talented kid and can play anywhere in the backline. The challenge was to find the best position for him,' McIntosh said. 'When we took the decision to move him to scrumhalf, he opened up play. We want him to be behind the defensive line so he can sweep.'
Robertson, who like skipper Wright and Rowan Varty are full-time professionals funded by the HKRFU, was returning from a hamstring injury. He looked sharp in Dubai, but team officials believe he will be even better on his home turf. 'He is running a lot stronger than at the World Cup. He was good in Dubai, but I think he will be better at the Hong Kong Sevens,' McIntosh said.
Hong Kong will need all his silky skills if they are to push their opponents in pool play.
'It doesn't get much harder than this,' McIntosh said. 'We want to go out there and come back with those teams feeling they have been in a contest. We want to get more consistency into our game and that means being focused for 14 minutes.'
Forwards Wright, Goosen, Gbenda-Charles and Nick Hurrell will carry a huge load. They have to win possession for talented backs Robertson, Varty, Kenzo Pannell and the McQueen brothers, Tom and Alex. In Dubai, the backs were cast into a defensive role.
'At the World Cup, we started well and scored first against every team, but as the games progressed the performance diminished. So the goal is to be consistent. We have no pressure on us,' said McIntosh.
That pressure will come when Hong Kong take part in the two Games. But they'll get a preview as they track the progress of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China.
If Hong Kong can put one over these sides this weekend, it will go a long way towards their goal of becoming the first Hong Kong team sport to win a medal. The HKRFU wants the bragging rights so it can proudly tell the rest of Hong Kong what rugby has achieved and spark more interest in the local community.
For Wright and company, this weekend is just the beginning.