Olympic repêchage offers an ideal opportunity for Hong Kong to show they mean business
Gareth Baber’s men face a difficult task to qualify for Rio at this weekend’s last-chance event in Monaco, but they can do much to help build a bright future for the game
If, and it’s a reasonably sized if, Hong Kong can deliver a strong performance in the Olympic Games repêchage in Monaco this weekend, the reverberations could be felt for a long time to come.
While it is generally accepted that Hong Kong can’t win at the weekend, what they can do is add a little bit more excitement to what it means to play rugby here at home.
The bottom line for Hong Kong is that they have a reasonable pool – Mexico, South Korea and Spain – which they should progress from.
If they were to top pool D, it is likely Zimbabwe or Tonga would await in the quarter-finals, making a semi-final berth realistic.
After that, with HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series teams Samoa, Russia and Canada circling, the going gets a lot tougher but the chance of going deep into the tournament is very real.
Doing that could play a big part in attracting and retaining players moving forward.
There is no doubt momentum behind Hong Kong rugby is building, but player availability looms as one of the biggest hurdles to be jumped, regardless of how good the professional 15s and sevens programmes are.
You can pump all the training and all the resources in that you want, but if the talent isn’t there then progress won’t be made.
Enticing outside talent to Hong Kong through the domestic competition is one thing; keeping local talent is a far more important and much simpler route.
Leigh Jones, the coach of Hong Kong’s national 15s side, has said the HKRU have already started to slow the drain of talent through its education and employment pathways.
That’s a fantastic result and something that needed to happen.
But if you are 16 or 17 years old and about to embark on what you hope to be a rugby career at the top level, as grounded and mature as most kids are these days there are going to bigger lures than a university scholarship or a cushy job.
Young players with stars in their eyes want to play at the highest level and they want to win.
They want to know there is a chance to play in the biggest events rugby has to offer.
For Hong Kong, the 15s World Cup, the Sevens World Series and the Olympics are about as big as it is ever going to get.
While the World Cup might be a pipe dream, at least in 2019 anyhow, the Hong Kong sevens team really isn’t that far away from the international circuit.
They showed this by pushing Japan for a good part of the final of the qualifying competition here in Hong Kong in April, before going down 24-14.
It’s quite astounding to think how close they actually came to becoming a core team on World Rugby's global tour.
Not that they are anywhere near ready to compete at that level, but they are certainly heading in the right direction.
And they are heading towards becoming a team that a young player growing up in Hong Kong, or even one that has gone away to study like recent 15s debutant Finlay Field, desperately wants to play for.
Every elite athlete dreams of going to the Olympics, but not many that play a team sport get the opportunity.
Imagine being able to realistically offer the possibility of playing in the Olympics to a player you are trying to convince to commit to the team.
The opportunity here is massive – where else in the world does such a small population of players have such facilities and funding at their disposal?
Now Hong Kong needs to transform themselves into a team that everyone wants to play for, a bit like the All Blacks in New Zealand, but on an obviously smaller scale.
A fighting performance in Monaco – one that shows budding young stars that, hey, this team isn’t actually that far off cracking a berth at the Olympics – will build on the team’s Hong Kong Sevens effort in April just nicely.
Hong Kong already has a lot to make young players want to be involved, with the professional programmes and the chance to play a high standard of rugby.
Add in the realistic prospect of playing in the very top echelon of sevens, and talent should be lining up at the door.