Rees finds warmth in chilly Europe
There was little cheer for Hong Kong after their first-ever venture into Europe with the chilly news they had dropped to a lowest-ever position of 39 in the IRB world rankings.
Snowbound Europe proved a harsh environment for the 29-strong squad and with all three games ending in defeat - 24-14 to Germany, 17-5 to the Czech Republic and 25-10 to the Netherlands - it was hardly surprising Hong Kong slipped five places down the ladder.
The groundbreaking tour was designed as a springboard for next year's HSBC Asian Five Nations (A5N) Top Five tournament, which doubles up as a 2011 World Cup qualifier. But head coach Dai Rees (pictured) remains optimistic everything is on target as Hong Kong prepare to take on Japan, the favourites to win Asia's automatic berth in the World Cup, as well as South Korea, Kazakhstan and the Arabian Gulf, who will all be vying for the runners-up slot to go into a repechage. A thawed Rees told Alvin Sallay why Hong Kong can take much heart from the European adventure, stressing the experience would prove invaluable.
Q Apart from the experience, what were the tangible benefits from the tour?
A We capped 15 players, and re-engaged several key players. Mark Wright played his first international at number seven, and it was his first 15s game in two years. Tim Alexander came back after a double leg fracture and regained his match-fitness to an international level. Tsang Hing-hung returned to international 15s after a long spell away training to become a police officer. There were first caps for some promising young players such as So Hok-ken and Salom Yiu Kam-shing. Players in key positions gained significant experience. Alex Ng Wai-shing was capped twice and started two games against European front-row opposition. It was a huge experience for him as he was normally used in the last 20 minutes. For Keith Robertson it was a first start in an international game at number 10. He played well in difficult conditions that put pressure on game control. We now have depth in this position. We successfully engaged new IRB-qualified players in Charles French, Alex Baddeley, Nick Hewson, Jack Bennett and Tom McColl. The biggest benefit will be in taking our A5N team into a strong rugby culture. We tested ourselves in new conditions and derived real performance feedback we can focus on over the next four months. Traditionally, we have been preparing with training camps and matches against club opposition in Australia or the like. I believe the benefits will be seen in our World Cup qualification campaign.
Q What were Hong Kong's main shortcomings?
A The front row and the tight five continue to be an area we are looking at and this is a traditional problem here. We introduced several young players during the tour [Alex Ng, Baddeley, Andy Li, Bennett] so this will benefit us enormously in the coming months. We had the chance to integrate these players with existing front-row players. We also have an important benchmark on areas we need to improve on so this will be a focus. In the tight five we also had a first cap for Renaud Chavanis and he was also one of the finds of the tour.
Q How are you going to address the front-row problems before the A5N?
A It really goes beyond the national team set-up into club rugby as well. We need to continue to work on ensuring our national team players are exposed to high-intensity league competition and for the health of the game. For the national team set-up we will have three months after the end of the league in February to focus on this area. One thing that came out of the tour was the need for our coaching team to structure more intense training for the tight five and front-row players to ensure they keep their fitness and intensity levels up after the domestic season. We want to replicate the intensity of the opposition that we met on the European tour and I believe this will put us in good stead for the A5N.
Q Winger Salom Yiu seemed to be the find of the tour. Who else stood out?
A Chavanis played well, as did the guys slotting into somewhat new positions like Wright and Robertson. Rowan Varty was strong as usual in the centres. Chavanis, Wright, Baddeley, Bennett, French, Kwok Ka-chun, Simon Leung and Nick Hewson all stood out in the forwards. Apart from Salom, So Hok-ken, Robertson, Tom McColl all played well in the backs and Tim Alexander as he regained his match fitness.
Q Did the weather play a part in our results - or lack of them? If so, why did you choose to go to Europe in the dead cold of winter?
A It was another means to take our guys out of their comfort zone, but it can be just as cold in Almaty [Kazakhstan] as it was in Europe so I don't think it is something we can avoid being in Asia. It wasn't that cold for a Welshman or a Kiwi, but it may have been cold for guys who have been in Asia for a while. Primarily, we went to Europe because we play a northern hemisphere season and need to find teams that we can compete against. Also the large numbers of Tier-Three nations in Europe make it a good destination for us. Outside of our A5N opposition in Asia we are not testing ourselves in terms of comfort levels so we need to identify other regions to play in. Also Europe offered us the chance to engage in a real rugby culture and training environment.
Q How will playing against heavier opponents, who obviously have a different style and approach to the Japanese and Koreans, benefit us?
A Fundamentally, the game is the same no matter who we are playing. It comes down to game control, dealing with pressure and dealing with the intensity of international rugby. The tour has given us great experience in these aspects. We played good opposition but I am going to go on record and say I thought we were a better team than our three opponents. We need to improve our ability to deal with the three elements above. We played highly motivated Tier-Three opponents that treated these matches as full-on tests. We played three tests in seven days against a fresh 22 every time so you can begin to understand the accomplishments of the tour. The benefits will follow.
Q Will future European tours be on the cards?
A I hope so. I hope this could be a regular event. Ideally, it could be almost like an autumn series but in December, and we can develop a short developmental window for our national players.
Q What now?
A We return to league competition through February while the sevens squad will get into their programme for the Hong Kong Sevens. The core of the team is now together and united and we will re-introduce a few of the veterans from previous A5N squads when we reassemble in February for our push to the World Cup qualification in April.