Uniformed ‘brothers’ play key role in growth of the game
Every year our domestic rugby league takes a break over the festive period to allow for holidays and guilt-free consumption of mince pies and Quality Street, but not all competitive activity ceases as Hong Kong's Disciplined Services host their annual fixture against the People’s Liberation Army for the TK Lai Cup.
For those involved, this is one of the highlights of the rugby calendar and a reminder of the important role the police and military played in the development of Hong Kong rugby.
In September the Police Rugby Club organised a dinner to celebrate what was thought to be their 60th anniversary, although thanks to a deluge of historical information from former members around the globe it transpired it was more probably the 75th anniversary!
Matches were certainly played in 1938, if not before, and although initially they were some way behind both the British military sides and the Hong Kong Football Club, by the 1970s the Police were no longer strangers to the odd bit of silverware. By the mid-1980s they were arguably the strongest side in the First Division and famously won the Singapore Cricket Club Sevens in 1989.
The 1997 handover and the end to expatriate recruitment critically reduced the player pool that Police rugby could draw from, and many felt that the club would quietly fade from the scene.
Thankfully, the concept of growing the game amongst the local officers had already been firmly planted some years before through the vision and determination of individuals like Gus Cunningham, and this allowed the club to reinvent itself to the point where there are now just a handful of ageing gweilos left running out in the three men’s teams and the Sirens women’s team each week.
Not only is the Police Rugby Club in robust health, but in the past few years the creation of a Disciplined Services Rugby Committee has seen touch rugby clubs formed in all the other uniformed departments – fire services, customs, immigration, correctional services, auxiliary police and civil aid.
These clubs participate in three annual Inter-Service Touch Tournaments, as well as sending representative contact sevens teams to the World Police and Fire Games and World Firefighters Games and, of course, they take on the PLA in the 15s TK Lai Cup match each year.
The PLA side have been a fixture in the local leagues for many years now, the result of the hard work of George Simpkin during his tenure at the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union in the 1990s. Although their one team hardly fills the numerical gap left by the pre-97 departure of Tigers, Flying Kukris and the rotating Stanley garrison, they are still a welcome and valued part of the rugby community.
It is a common misconception that the PLA rugby team is Hong Kong based, but in fact they are stationed at the army’s sports institute in Guangzhou. It remains a hope that one day the local garrison here will open their gates and perhaps use sport as a first step to engage more closely with the Hong Kong people who, as evidenced by the popularity of the PLA’s annual open days, clearly wish to see more of the PLA now those 1997 jitters are a distant and fading memory.
Those open gates might also potentially provide some access to the Aladdin's cave of rugby, soccer and cricket pitches that lie barely used in the camps at Stanley and Shek Kong – a frustrating situation for a sports community increasingly desperate for access to facilities.
Both the Disciplined Services and PLA officers regard their annual rugby match as a special opportunity to spend time with their uniformed “brothers”, and there is no doubt occasions such as this are valuable in fostering greater understanding, appreciation and co-operation across the Services.
While the Secretary for Security, Lai Tung-kwok, has so far experienced presenting his trophy only to the PLA, who won 50-10 to retain the trophy at the end of December, this is one of those fixtures where the result is genuinely secondary to the camaraderie engendered by the event ... although to be fair a win for the home side in 2014 would make a nice change!