‘Rugby, where you don’t get smacked’ – how the mixed gender sport of tag is bringing Hong Kong together

Hong Kong Tag introduced the non-contact sport to the city three years ago and is already one of 30 representing nations preparing for the Tag World Cup in Australia in November

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 August, 2018, 2:52pm
UPDATED : Friday, 17 August, 2018, 2:52pm

A balmy summer evening at the far end of Happy Valley’s grass pitches often conjures images of brawny rugby players bulldozing through a collision course of similarly-sized peers.

But fear not, average Hongkongers, as there is a new, all-inclusive, mixed gender, “minimal contact” version of the sport in town: tag rugby.

“We have older, smaller, unfit, super fit, sprinters … when you put all that together it can be really fun,” said Hong Kong Tag (HKTag) head coach James Elliot, a former Australian state-level tag player with more than 26 years’ experience in the sport, who is in charge of selecting Hong Kong’s debut 2018 Tag World Cup squad in Coff’s Harbour, Australia, this November.

Training and team trials looked like a poorly-cut people paper chain as the assortment of about 50 stood side-by-side for Elliot’s passing and movement drills.

“We’ve got some really experienced ex-national touch [rugby] players and some really quick kids … look at the age gap we have, [at training] tonight we had from 17 to 46 years old,” said Elliot, a full-time PE teacher at American International School (AIS).

‘Tag’, as it is simply known on the pitch, is based on rugby league rules but also draws techniques from touch and rugby union. It is a non-contact team game which means no tackling or dropping one’s shoulder ahead of a tagging scenario.

All players wear two Velcro tags attached to their shorts. The attacking or ball-carrying team must evade opposing players or pass the ball as defenders attempt to rip the tags off. There are a number of tag variants with slightly different rules in kicking, offloads and the number of phases of play.

HKTag chairman Neville Metcalfe said: “The Aussies basically invented the form of tag we play. It was a way for injured players to get back into playing rugby before going into full rugby league collision.

“There are significant differences. If you were playing touch you’re not going to get through the gap unless you’re exceptionally good, whereas you might in tag because you can swing your hips. [The rules] make the game more open and you see more individual flair.”

There are eight domestic teams and two group pools in the HKTag Super League. The Tag Buffalos will be looking to defend their title in the Grand Final at King’s Park on August 25.

Most of Elliot’s World Cup squad will be plucked from the Super League, which includes a selection of his own students. The last of the team trials were held last week and Elliot predicts seven to nine of the squad of 20 will be females.

“Three of my students trialled and what we hope to get is enthusiasm for a younger group to come through as well as the good leadership we already have,” said Elliot.

“Some aren’t used to playing mixed so they’re throwing rocket passes, and some of the ladies might step too close because the guys have longer reach. Everyone’s learning.

“The experienced players will literally slow it down for the newer ones. You don’t want to come down and get smoked every time – they need to find where they fit at that level of competition.”

AIS student Megan So Hui-fang, 17, was whisked into team trials after an impressive showing at school and in last season’s Super League. She is the reigning international schools 100m and 200m champion and despite never touching a rugby ball until last year, looks set for World Cup duty.

“I run track and play basketball and volleyball,” she said. “It’s interesting – my mum would never let me play contact because I’m a small person but when she realised it’s not as [contact-driven], I was allowed to join and I really enjoy playing with friends, male or female.

“Plus I get to show that I’m a female and I can do something – sometimes in PE class the guys take over the entire game.

“This is a sport where you can always do something, even if you’re bad. You don’t have to worry about embarrassing yourself because you can just stand there and tag somebody.”

Metcalfe – also chairman of the Hong Kong Rugby League, which is preparing for November’s Emerging Nations World Cup – launched tag two years ago having identified an untapped Hong Kong market.

“I’m a rugby league guy, but full contact is not for everyone. Tag doesn’t exclude anyone, but it’s not just about the females – not all guys want to get smacked either. It gives people an avenue to play a good, enjoyable form of rugby,” he said.

“This will be their first representative form or rugby, so I just want them to set a marker [for the future]. We’re absolute minnows in terms of tag, but it’s a great reward and I want people to feel proud of Hong Kong as I’ve got a lot out of this city.”