Net gain: Hong Kong netballers confident of raising the bar at Asian Championships
Robin Manihera’s squad adopt ‘professional’ approach in bid to break into top three in the region at the tournament in Thailand between July 31-August 7
The Hong Kong netball team arrived in Bangkok on Friday confident of success at the Asian Championships, and looking to repay an investment of around HK$200,000 just to send the group of 16 players and staff to Thailand.
Fourth-ranked Hong Kong arguably have the best chance in recent years to challenge leading sides Singapore, Sri Lanka and Malaysia, who have been the top three finishers at the tournament in 2012 and 2014, for honours.
On both occasions Hong Kong finished fourth, but with the majority of the city’s leading players available, hopes are high of breaking into the top three.
Former Scotland international Anna Pinder was persuaded to join the side ahead of trials earlier this year, while captain Jessica McCauley, Victoria Smith and former national team coach Connie Wong add further experience to the side.
And while they all have to take time out from their day jobs and regular lives to travel to Bangkok, the build-up and preparation has been anything but at an amateur level.
Well-respected New Zealand coach Robin Manihera has put the team through a gruelling fitness regime and the side are raring to go ahead of Monday’s group stage opener against fifth seeds Taiwan.
“There is a lot of confidence in the camp and that is due to the preparation,” said Manihera.
“Hong Kong traditionally hasn’t been able to get more of the top players together because of things like work commitments, but I am told this is the first time we have been able to get most of the top players and this will be one of the strongest teams that has ever been put forward. We are ranked fourth and our aim is to improve our ranking.
“The support from the fitness guys has been amazing. If you saw the girls at the start, they have got stronger each week and their confidence has grown.
“We have trained really hard for this, the girls know what they are doing, and we are aiming for that higher ranking.”
Around 70 per cent of the money needed to cover flights, accommodation and expenses for the tournament has been covered by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, with the remainder made up by the Hong Kong Netball Association and its members.
Hong Kong are ranked 26th in the world by the International Netball Federation behind Singapore (17th) and Malaysia (22nd). Sri Lanka are ranked 27th.
It is hoped this approach, and potential success in Thailand, will allow the netball community in Hong Kong to continue to grow and put the team in an even better position for the 2018 Asian Netball Championship, which is set to offer the top two finishers qualification for the World Cup, previously known as the world championships.
The Hong Kong Netball Association has expanded the women’s set-up from six to seven divisions boasting over 60 teams, while the mixed league contains teams made up of both male and female players and has 40 teams.
A new six-team men’s league has also been introduced along with an expanded junior programme, meaning there are an estimated 3,000 active players, excluding schools.
“We are really looking forward to the championship,” said Hong Kong captain McCauley. “We have had a shorter lead-up than in past years, meaning our training schedule has been very focused. We have a great playing group, everyone is very supportive of each other, and we are hoping to do very well.”
The inclusion of Pinder, a 36-year-old teacher, is an indicator of the commitment and team spirit within the camp, after the mother of three was convinced by McCauley and Smith to revive her international career having played for Scotland between 2003-08.
That included an appearance for Scotland at the 2007 World Championships and stints in the top professional leagues in her native New Zealand as well as in England.
“This approach is definitely new for Hong Kong. I have played at quite a high level before and I am used to what should be done before this type of tournament. I didn’t know what to expect, but they have done a fantastic job and they have been so professional,” said vice-captain Pinder, whose husband Sam is a former Scotland rugby international and is now working at the Hong Kong Rugby Union.
“I think the whole set-up has been a step forward and it is really exciting for Hong Kong netball. I couldn’t have asked for more in terms of preparation and the money that Hong Kong netball have put in in terms of coaching and management.”
Two-time defending champions Singapore will provide Hong Kong’s sternest test in group A, with the sides meeting on Wednesday after Manihera’s side face the Maldives on Tuesday before rounding off their fixtures against Thailand on Thursday.
A top-two finish would send Hong Kong through to Saturday’s semi-finals, with the final taking place on Sunday.
“I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t be in the final. We have a big chance to win and that would be great for Hong Kong netball,” said Pinder, who moved to Hong Kong around seven years ago.
“A few of us have been here with other teams and we know what it takes.”