40 years of fun: Kowloon Rugby Club prepares for a huge anniversary season
HKRU Premiership launches at King’s Park with a Super Saturday that sees men’s and women’s triple-headers in an action-packed opening day
From Boundary Road to So Kon Po and on to King’s Park, the Kowloon Rugby Club has carried the fun throughout a unique and historic 40 years of existence.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been some serious rugby along the way, with an array of golden eras and a raft of special players, including some of Hong Kong’s best.
The club, which was formed to provide affordable rugby for all with a focus on Chinese youth, is determined to use their anniversary season to accelerate a rebuild that will leave them well placed for years to come.
Kowloon has this season significantly boosted their Chinese membership numbers and are working hard to put pathways in place to ensure youth have a clear route to the senior sides.
“The whole point of this rebuild is there is much more depth to it,” said club chairman Jason Conlin.
“It [the anniversary] is the short window for what we have been building towards so that we can create the pathways for the future and sustainability. There is no doubt this is where it starts for us to take on the Football Clubs, Valleys and Cricket Clubs and start breaking their stranglehold.”
A long and storied history got off to an unassuming start in 1976, with John Eastman, David Lacey and Bill Trotter the driving forces behind a club which has its roots in the YMCA side of the time.
“David Lacey and I played a year together at YMCA but it was a real struggle getting players,” said Eastman, who coached Kowloon to their first premiership.
“Towards the end of that season a group of us got together and we thought that we should form a different entity. Most of rugby is social as much as it is sporty and the YMCA was not quite the right vehicle for that.”
A donation of HK$3,000 from Hong Kong Land chairman Vernon Roberts was crucial to getting the club off the ground, while no field or headquarters of their own did little to dampen Kowloon’s early enthusiasm.
“We played at Boundary Street and the Hong Kong police rugby facilities were right next door,” said Anthony Wolfe, who played from 1979-83 and is contributing to a book on the history of the club.
“They were very happy for us to have a post-match beer or three and were really important in terms of the club being formed.”
It was the lack of facilities that laid the foundation for a club that has been defined throughout its history by its unbreakable social fabric and tight-knit community.
“We couldn’t offer all the other things that the Football Club and those could offer, so we had to find other things to attract people and it was the social side and the parties that attracted people,” said Eastman, who played in the club’s first three seasons.
Things happened quickly for Kowloon in the early days and while the club laid their foundations on being a welcoming, family club, it wasn’t long before on-field success came.
A whole new world: former England international Olly Barkley joins Kowloon coaching staff for start of Hong Kong Premiership campaign
The club won their first top division premiership in the 1981-82 season, is credited for introducing 10-a-side rugby to Hong Kong in 1980 and in 1984 became the first rugby side to tour China since 1949.
According to Eastman, Kowloon was also one of the pioneers of youth rugby in Hong Kong, while more recent successes include back-to-back Premiership wins in 2011-12 and 2012-13.
They have called King’s Park their home for the past eight years after a stint at So Kon Po followed the memorable formative years at Boundary Road.
Names like Jon Jenkins, Peter Colliver – the first Kowloon player to play for Hong Kong – and Tony Tyler are still revered around the club, while more recent stars include Matt Stockdale and Tom McColl.
There are a host of celebrations slated for a season that will see players old and new come together, including the return of the infamous Miss Kowloon, and the significance of the milestone is not lost on Conlin.
“Once Loon, always Loon,” he said.
“When you come in and play for Kowloon, you make friends for life.”
Kowloon’s season begins at home against Borrelli Walsh USRC Tigers on the HKRU Premiership’s Super Saturday opener that will also see Bloomberg HK Scottish take on Herbert Smith Freehills HKCC and Natixis HKFC face Societe Generale Valley.
Kowloon are hopeful of a good start on the back of the addition of former England international Olly Barkley, among others, and the retention of all but one of last year’s list.
“Kowloon is one of those clubs where people come and tend to stay and love it so hopefully we can repay some of the loyalty with a good year this year,” coach James Scaysbrook said.
A preseason camp was crucial for Kowloon in integrating their recruits into the existing squad.
“We have five new boys in this year,” Scaysbrook said.
“It was important that we went away together as a group and the boys worked incredibly hard but we also had some fun, so it was beneficial on both fronts.”
Powerhouses Valley, HKFC and HKCC are all looking strong again, although the loss of prop Leon Wei Hon-sum and Hong Kong playmaker Salom Yiu Kam-shing could see Valley come slightly back to the pack.
HKCC has stated its intent for a big season with nine new signings, including New Zealand front rower Fai Mika and former Valley back rower Ben Davey.
Scottish will be boosted by the signing of elite rugby programme player Conor Hartley from HKCC, while the arrival of Yiu will provide a lift for Tigers.
In the Women’s Premiership, Valley play SCAA First Pacific CWB Phoenix, CPM Gai Wu Falcons face Kowloon and Comvita City Sparkle take on Tigers.