Rugby in 240 Hong Kong schools just the start as new chief Robbie McRobbie maps out pathway to the top
The 45-year-old also prioritises building a sustainable commercial model around Hong Kong’s professional teams as he takes over the hot seat
New Hong Kong Rugby Union chief executive Robbie McRobbie says having touch rugby in 240 primary schools by 2019 is only the first step in a plan to create an uninterrupted pathway to the top.
McRobbie, who takes over from Vern Reid on May 1, believes achieving this initiative – which is at the forefront of the union’s four-year plan – will have a dramatic knock-on effect.
“We want to create a pathway, so that a boy or girl at the age of four comes into the game and ahead of them is this seamless transition all the way to national level,” McRobbie said.
“Our feeling is that when you hit that kind of number , that really is where we want the base of the pyramid to be.
“As those kids then move up into secondary school, we hope there will be a groundswell and more secondary schools will play.”
McRobbie highlighted the HSBC Try Rugby programme and the union’s strategic partnerships with primary schools as key to reaching this goal, but one of the biggest challenges is just how this pathway will translate to on-field success.
“We are now going through how we can ensure the environment and the culture, at all levels but particularly at that key teenage level, is going to help young men and women to go on and achieve their athletic potential,” he said.
“Once we have these kids coming into the system and we have a first-class environment with kids coming out as good rugby players, that then feeds into the national age grade programme and the national teams and will start reflecting on our results.”
McRobbie spent 11 years in the Hong Kong police force before joining the union in 2003 as its community rugby manager and has used that background to play a big part in the rugby section of Operation Breakthrough.
He plans to use his knowledge of the “nuances” of Hong Kong culture to make an impact in his new role.
“I hope one point of difference between myself and Vern is that I have lived in Hong Kong for a long time, I’m married to a local girl and I speak a bit of Cantonese,” said McRobbie, who came to Hong Kong from Scotland in 1992.
“Hong Kong rugby is really ingrained in me. I have grown up with it so I probably bring with me a bit more of an understanding of the history of the game in Hong Kong and the nuances of the Hong Kong culture and environment.”
The 45-year-old says one of Reid’s great strengths was fostering a team environment and that while he hopes to replicate his success, he hasn’t “come into the job to rest on the laurels which Vern has achieved for us”.
At the top end, McRobbie praised the progress of Hong Kong’s senior teams, but acknowledged the need to find a way to make the pursuit of excellence sustainable.
“One of the key things for me is how we, off the pitch, build the commercial value around these areas,” he said.
“At the moment we don’t charge anybody to watch international or premiership rugby. That in itself is not important, but in order to make all of this sustainable going forward we need to build a product that is going to attract spectators and sponsors.”
Also important for McRobbie – who has long been a crusader for grassroots rugby – is ensuring that rugby remains accessible for all.
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“We don’t want to lose our focus on our vision which has always been that rugby is a game for all,” McRobbie said.
“It is not simply about the best kids that we think might go on and play national rugby, we want to continue to drive the game into all corners of the community.”
McRobbie knows the battle to increase participation numbers is ongoing and something that will forever go hand in hand with pitch availability.
“If the vision is to one day have every school kid in Hong Kong with a rugby ball in their closet, we are obviously still some way off that,” he said.
“Where we are now, which is about 10,000 registered players of all levels from minis up to seniors, we are creaking at the seams in terms of the number of pitches we have available and the amount of time on those pitches.
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“If we had another 10,000 rugby players sign up next week, we would have nowhere for them to train or play. We have to keep the issue of access to sports facilities right at the top of the agenda.”
Working with schools and universities to upgrade their facilities in return for usage is one way the union are addressing this.
Also high on the agenda is the impending Kai Tak Sports Park, something McRobbie says is “absolutely fundamental to our future”.
“It’s crucial that with the transition to a new stadium at Kai Tak that we are as engaged and involved as we possibly can be with this at all stages of the planning and we feel we have been consulted,” he said.
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“We wait with interest to see how much of that they have been able to put in the tender documents when they go live.”
A revised organisational structure at the union will see Dai Rees become the chief rugby operations officer, supported by general managers Leigh Jones, Nathan Stewart and Brandon Huang, while Rocky Chow assumes the role of chief commercial officer, supported by Sam Pinder in his role of general manager of sevens.