Should Hong Kong turn to the Japan Top League to fast track World Cup dream?
Eddie Jones likes the idea and it is one way to give Leigh Jones’ side the consistent high-intensity matches they need
A Hong Kong team in the Japan Top League?
It’s been floated before, with none less than England coach Eddie Jones a supporter of the idea, and now might be the time to start seriously considering the concept.
Super Rugby kicks off today at a very interesting time for world rugby, with an increasing number of nations thinking outside of the box when it comes to bridging the gap between themselves and the best.
Last year we saw Argentina’s Jaguares and Japan’s Sunwolves join the Super Rugby competition.
Now Georgia are in discussions with both Super Rugby and the Guinness Pro 12 about the prospect of fielding a team.
With the backing of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia have also made it clear how desperate they are to join the Six Nations, despite tournament chief John Feehan saying it wont happen.
On top of this, the Pro 12 has expressed an interest in including one or more teams from the United States in its competition, something USA Rugby are keen on.
When you consider the logistics behind a team from Argentina, or even one day Georgia, playing Super Rugby, or a team based in the US joining the Pro 12, on the surface a Hong Kong team playing in Japan seems like a breeze.
Jones floated the idea when he was coach of Japan back in 2013, saying it would be the perfect way for Hong Kong to bridge the gap on their Asian nemesis.
At the time, Hong Kong Rugby Union chairman Trevor Gregory said it was a bridge too far, citing Hong Kong’s small player base.
That player base has since grown and continues to, with more than 30 players now part of the full-time elite rugby programme.
While Hong Kong may have closed the gap somewhat on Japan, there is still a long way to go and the chance of that gap widening again is very real.
Japan had a taste of the big time in beating South Africa at the 2015 World Cup and with the 2019 edition on their shores, they are in a hurry to mix it with the best.
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Hong Kong’s current approach – full-time training with a smattering of tests – should see them keep moving forward for some time yet.
But is it enough to get them into a World Cup, either soon or ever? With so many teams hell-bent on improving and only 20 slots available in the World Cup, only very good sides make the cut.
While Hong Kong played only eight tests in 2016, a team in the Japan Top League would give them consistent high-level competition.
Obviously there would be times when player numbers would be stretched – none more so than during the November test window when Hong Kong hosts the Cup of Nations.
The concept has one fan in Hong Kong star Jamie Hood, who spent last season playing for the Tokyo-based Ricoh Black Rams.
Hood says that from a player’s perspective he’d welcome the opportunity with open arms, despite the challenges.
“It would very, very good for Hong Kong but I think it would be a tough learning curve for the first couple of years,” he said.
“I loved playing there and testing myself against those sort of class players. I’m sure the players in Hong Kong would love to have regular games at that level in front of those sort of crowds.”
Hood feels it wouldn’t take long for Hong Kong to be competitive against side’s packed with internationals.
“Yamaha have six or seven Japan players in their team and the other ones are all past internationals that played for Australia or New Zealand or whoever,” Hood said.
“It’s a very high level of competition. But Hong Kong could definitely be competitive. Certainly mid-table I would say within a couple of years.”
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Hong Kong assistant coach Craig Hammond – who is also in charge of HK Scottish – is open to the idea, but admits chasing more test matches may be a more feasible way to source the high-intensity games Hong Kong needs.
Of course making this happen would provide more than a few headaches for the union.
But, at a time when other teams are leaving no stone unturned for an edge, Hong Kong could have the key to taking the next step waiting on their doorstep.