Hong Kong skipper James Cunningham tells talented youngsters to follow Max Denmark’s lead
The 18-year-old is getting his chance in the Asia Rugby Championship and his opportunities can serve as a reminder to those thinking of leaving
New Hong Kong captain James Cunningham hopes the rise of dynamic 18-year-old Max Denmark will serve as a reminder to the city’s talented youngsters of the opportunities on offer here.
Hong Kong have long battled with players heading overseas to pursue study or playing opportunities, but Denmark has chosen to stay in Hong Kong and played his first full test against Malaysia in the Asia Rugby Championship at the weekend.
The versatile playmaker made his sevens and 15s debuts in 2017 before quickly becoming a key fixture in Paul John’s sevens team and lines up on the wing against South Korea in the 15s format on Saturday.
“I think it was a good decision for him to stay in Hong Kong,” said Cunningham. “He is getting such good exposure so I hope it does set a kind of precedent for those guys and gets them thinking about staying and playing a bit more rugby here.
“I understand a lot of them want to go overseas and try their luck in those competitions in the UK, France or Australia where they might be eligible, but I think the rugby has grown so much in Hong Kong in the last couple of years. It’s not a bad place to develop as a player.
“The way the professional programme has developed in the last two years is remarkable, it’s at a place now where I don’t think it would be far off any other professional programme in the world.”
After making his 15s debut in the back row, Denmark has made the transition to the wing and gives Leigh Jones’ side the type of ball-carrying weapon it has lacked in the past.
“Max has settled in really well, he’s big, he’s strong, he’s fast and as we saw in the last game [against Malaysia], he can run a hard line and cause some real dramas for the defence,” Cunningham said.
“I’m really excited to see him play again this week, I think he’s only going to get better each game.”
After brushing aside Malaysia 67-8 in their opening match, Hong Kong face a sterner test away to South Korea in a game that could prove crucial to deciding the eventual winner of the tournament, which is the first step of World Cup qualifying.
“They’re big, they’re physical and they have got a strong set piece. We have just got to turn up and do what we did last week, be dominant in our set piece and play quick footy,” Cunningham said.
“I’m confident that we can do a job. They have got big ball carriers and they can play from anywhere on the field.
“They seem to be able to play very well from chaos ball, so if the ball is loose they can pick it up and they really play from that, so as long we can stop that chaos game I think we will get a good result.”
Kyle Sullivan is the only new face in Hong Kong’s starting 15, replacing Jamie Pincott in the second row, while Kane Boucaut and Ben Rimene return to the side via the bench.
Robbie Keith is the only player missing from last week at this stage, with Jones still to trim one player from his squad ahead of kick-off.
Hong Kong squad
Dan Barlow, Ben Roberts, Dylan Rogers, James Cunningham (c), Kyle Sullivan, Nick Hewson, Toby Fenn, Thomas Lamboley, Liam Slatem, Matt Rosslee, Max Denmark, Tyler Spitz, Max Woodward, Salom Yiu Kam-shing, Jack Neville, Alex Harris, Adam Fullgrabe, Jack Parfitt, Jamie Pincott, Kane Boucaut, Conor Hartley, Ben Rimene, Jamie Lauder and Mike Parfitt.