HK trio turn professional in Japan
In a ground-breaking move, three Hong Kong players will figure in the highly competitive and professional Japanese Top League next season.
Rowan Varty, Mark Wright and Kenzo Pannell have landed contracts with Toyota Jido Shokki in the 14-team Top League - a move that has been welcomed by Hong Kong head coach Dai Rees.
'This is a huge step forward in all of our careers,' Varty said.
'The best thing is that Toyota Jido Shokki have just been promoted to the Top League and we will get the chance to play against the best in Japan.'
The lucrative league, which is backed by top corporations in Japan, features many former internationals, including All Blacks and Wallabies.
Outside centre Varty and openside flanker Wright, who both figured in the national side routed 94-5 by Japan in the final game at the HSBC Asian Five Nations Top Five competition in Tokyo on Saturday, did not return home with the rest of the squad last night.
They joined Pannell - who has been out this season for Hong Kong - in Nagoya, where Toyota Jido Shokki are based, for pre-season training. The league begins in September.
'It is good for them to experience life as full-time rugby players. They will be training and playing all the time and it is bound to improve their game. I wish them all the best,' Rees said.
Sevens stars Varty and Wright were also the first Hong Kong players - along with Keith Robertson - to become 'professional' locally when they were contracted by the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union during the 2008-09 season. But that scheme was discontinued at the start of last season as it was felt it was not really sustainable.
However Varty, who has put a career as a lawyer on hold, had not given up hope of playing rugby full-time and pursued his dream in Japan. He has now been rewarded for his perseverance.
'I had an agent looking at my prospects last year. He has now landed me, as well as Mark and Kenzo, contracts to play for one season for this club in Nagoya. We are all looking forward to the challenge,' said the 24-year-old Varty, who did not disclose how much he would be paid.
Toyota Jido Shokki earned promotion to the Top League by finishing top of the regional league (West). England sevens star Ben Gollings played for the club in 2005, but the current crop of overseas players are mainly islanders (Tongans and Samoans).
'The head coach at this club is quite progressive. He has seen us play and was willing to look beyond just bringing in islanders, and has given us a chance.' Varty said. 'Hopefully we can play well and repay his faith in us.'
While welcoming the move, Rees said the trio would not be lost to Hong Kong rugby, although their local clubs would miss them as the two seasons coincide.
'They will be available to play for Hong Kong as and when the need arises,' Rees said. 'Both Mark and Rowan will be back to join the sevens set-up in the build-up for the Asian Games in November.'
Varty said: 'This is one of the reasons why this offer was so attractive. We can still play for Hong Kong - that's brilliant. It is just a three-hour flight from Japan and we will be available to represent the national side.'
With the dreams of qualifying for next year's World Cup over - Japan won the automatic berth for Asia, while the runners-up in the A5N, Kazakhstan, will move into the repechages - Hong Kong's next international assignment will be in sevens when they take part in tournaments in Singapore and Kota Kinabalu in October-November before the Asian Games in Guangzhou.