Ahead of the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens, a Tale of Two Players
One seasoned squad member and another who’s debuting in the tournament show the sport is as dangerous as it is glorious.
When I interviewed two rugby players ahead of the Hong Kong Sevens, I didn’t know what to expect from them. But I quickly saw that Ben Rimene was willing to sacrifice his own health for the love of the sport and his teammate James Cunningham left his family in Australia—all for the glory of the game.
Rimene started his local rugby career in 2009 and his debut in the Hong Kong Sevens squad took place just three years later, during the Asian series. Today, he is one of the few players on the squad over 30 years old.
Born to a Scottish mother and a Maori father in New Zealand, Rimene says his two elder brothers made sure he knew his place as the youngest in the family. “A few ambush attacks helped, but I always lost in the end.” It’s somewhat of a surprise, then, that now a squad veteran, Rimene is a mentor to team captain Max Woodward—and Rimene and his best friend and teammate, Lee Jones, are the squad clowns.
“We are privileged to be in the position we are in. We compete against the best athletes in the world,” Rimene says.
James Cunningham, joining the ranks of Hong Kong Rugby Union elites this year, made his Sevens debut for Hong Kong earlier this month in Borneo. Next month will be his first Hong Kong Sevens. But, he is no stranger to the city—his father worked at the local branch of IBM when he was born. Cunningham’s family soon moved back to Australia, where they live now.
“If we become a part of the global World Series after a successful weekend in the Sevens, this would open up a number of travel opportunities and exposure to some great rugby, which is what I came to Hong Kong for,” Cunningham says.
Cunningham splits his time between his full-time position in the HKRU Elite Rugby Program, Hong Kong’s first professional platform for 15s rugby, and a business development role at Woodside Wine + Spirits. “I’m loving my side gig. There could be some good opportunities in that industry down the line, but hopefully there won’t be interruptions to my rugby in the near future.” The newcomer is also a final year candidate for a distance learning teaching degree at an Australian university.
“We don’t just travel and play rugby. Like every profession, there’s a lot of behind the scenes work.” —Ben Rimene
Rimene also has a side gig, and it doesn’t stray far from his athletic roots—he’s a personal trainer in Central. “I’d go crazy if it was all just rugby,” Rimene says.
While neither Rimene nor Cunningham would give up their day jobs, Cunningham admits playing away from home would be better if his family, friends and long-term girlfriend moved from Australia to Hong Kong. Rimene, meanwhile, is content with the opportunities Hong Kong has to offer, with one exception—“the humidity in the peak of summer,” he says.
Joking aside, Rimene wants Hongkongers to know that there is more to rugby players than what meets the eye. “We don’t just travel and play rugby. Like every profession, there’s a lot of behind the scenes work,” he says. He trains two to three times a day, four or five days a week.
As the Sevens closes in, Rimene says the team is training harder than ever. Training is often accompanied by gym workout routines, skills and conditioning sessions, rugby-specific sessions and sometimes overseas trainings. “The training session in Borneo just two weeks ago was one of the hardest I’ve ever had, both mentally and physically,” Rimene says.
The sport is as dangerous as it is glorious. Two years ago, Rimene suffered a chronic pelvic injury and had to be off the field for the entire year. “It’s not much fun,” Rimene says.
And what would he be doing if he wasn’t playing rugby? “I’d probably use my sports science degree, and not waste the student loan that I finally paid off,” he quips.