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HKRFU must fast-forward localisation drive as tighter residency rules loom

Current squad composition is better than many, but we will still be hit if World Rugby plan is passed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 May, 2015, 9:40am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 May, 2015, 3:06pm

Last May, Hong Kong travelled to Colombo to take on Sri Lanka in the Top Five competition in the Asian Five Nations, the Asian qualifiers for the World Cup.

My friends in Colombo told me after the match that Sri Lanka had been beaten by a foreign legion and that there was only one true Hong Kong player on the pitch – prop Leon Wei Hon-sum, who scored a brace in the 41-10 victory.

I had to explain that it was wrong to judge a book by its cover as Hong Kong had a number of players who, despite the colour of their skin, were born in the city: Jamie Hood, Tom and Alex McQueen, and Rowan Varty among others.

I also mentioned others such as skipper Nick Hewson, Tom McColl, Pale Tauti and Tom Bolland, who regarded Hong Kong as their home. My audience grudgingly accepted the fact that maybe half of the squad had a right to be out on the pitch, but they didn’t accept my argument that everything was above board since the entire squad were eligible under World Rugby regulations.

The biggest problem is that the cream of our young talent goes overseas to complete university degrees and this leaves a large hole to fill

They countered that the three-year residency requirement was too lenient and it should be tightened.

It seems World Rugby was listening, as a few weeks ago chief executive Brett Gosper said plans were afoot to review the residency rules. It is believed that eligibility would require five years of residency if the changes were to get the green light.

That would bring the rules in line with other major team sports such as soccer and cricket. Fifa extended its residency requirement from two to five years in 2008, while cricket allows countries to field only two players who have been resident for four years or more.

So where would it leave Hong Kong?

Dai Rees is confident the city can cope. The Hong Kong Rugby Football Union’s general manager of performance believes it will not have such a huge impact here, pointing to the composition of the 23-man squad who played against South Korea last month in the opener of the Asia Rugby Championship – 14 being Hong Kong-born.

But undoubtedly it will have an impact. For instance, Hong Kong would not be able to field Adrian Griffiths – who has just qualified under the three-year rule – for this Saturday's return match against Korea in Incheon.

Perhaps the rule change will be a good thing because it will speed up the pace of bringing on local talent.

The biggest problem is that the cream of our young talent goes overseas to attend university and this leaves a large hole to fill.

In sevens we are able to cope because players enrolled at the Hong Kong Sports Institute are encouraged to have a Hong Kong SAR passport so that they comply with Olympic regulations.

At the end of the day, if World Rugby tightens its residency regulations, Hong Kong will be hit. It is good this issue has been recognised by the HKRFU and they are addressing it. But the process of "localisation" has to be fast-forwarded.