Foresight and hard work sees Hong Kong rugby survive and thrive, despite handover ‘doom and gloom merchants’
Hong Kong Rugby Union chief Robbie McRobbie says it’s no accident local Chinese involvement has skyrocketed since 1997
Hong Kong Rugby boss Robbie McRobbie says it’s no accident there are “a hell of a lot more” local Chinese embracing the game now than before the handover.
An awareness of the threats the handover posed ensured the Hong Kong Rugby Union put the time and resources into developing the game, defying the theory that rugby wouldn’t survive after 1997.
“There were some doom and gloom merchants who did feel that rugby hadn’t managed to embed itself strongly enough within the local community to survive the departure of such a large group of its core members,” says McRobbie, the new HKRU chief executive.
“To the credit of the union, they were aware of the danger and they did invest a lot of time, energy and resources in building and developing the local game.”
The threats the game faced were significant, with the police no longer recruiting expats from 1994 and a host of armed forces teams ceasing in 1997.
“When I first started playing rugby in Hong Kong in the early ’90s, some of the bedrock of the rugby community was the armed forces and obviously the police,” says McRobbie, who played for the police club.
“Whilst the police remains to this day a strong presence in the rugby community, from the mid-90s onwards we weren’t playing at the highest level.
“The armed forces teams – Tigers, the Flying Kukris, whichever regiment was there, when I played it was the Black Watch – they were putting out six, seven, eight teams on a weekly basis so their departure left a gaping whole.”
In the 1996-97 season ending just before the handover, there were 38 men’s teams, while the next season that number shrunk to 34.
Any worry was short-lived, however, and the 2016-17 season saw a total of 84 senior men’s and women’s teams in action.
On top of that, mini rugby numbers have grown from just under 2,000 players with 12 clubs in 1997 to nearly 6,000 with 21 clubs now.
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“I would say well over 50 per cent of the senior rugby players in Hong Kong are local Chinese, which goes back to the point of ‘Is it the finished article?’” McRobbie says.
“Do members of the local community instantly understand and recognise rugby sevens and feel it is a Hong Kong game?
“No they don’t, but there is a hell of a lot more of them who are involved and embrace rugby now than prior to 1997.”
Another indication of the growth of the game is the expansion of the union itself, which McRobbie says has ballooned from fewer than 20 staff in 2003 to more than 100.
Looking ahead, McRobbie is keen to reignite the union’s once-strong ties with China and players from the People’s Liberation Army.
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“As part of the localisation of the game, the union reached out to China and for a long while we were very heavily engaged with the China Rugby Union,” he says.
“George Simpkin, who was then the Hong Kong director of rugby, got the PLA to start playing rugby and we had a very close relationship with the Chinese Agricultural University.
“We brought players down every season to play with our clubs, they’d work with our community department, we’d put them through coaching and refereeing courses and many of those guys have gone back to China and played a key role in growing the game.
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“We have always been very proud of that relationship with China, but over the past few years as they have gone their own way and done their own thing we have had a bit less engagement with them.
“For me, one of the key things that I want to do is to really kick-start that relationship again.”