Hong Kong’s first official rugby league test match proves code is here to stay despite the doubters in ‘union hotbed’
The sport has come a long way in just two years, with Hong Kong taking on Japan this Saturday as they prepare for next year’s Emerging Nations World Championship
As the Rugby League World Cup gathers steam, Hong Kong, too, are making their presence felt in a sport that until two years ago wasn’t even played here.
Hong Kong host Japan in their first fully sanctioned league test match at King’s Park on Saturday, kicking off an international cycle that culminates at next November’s Emerging Nations World Championship.
“We’ve come a long way in a pretty short period of time,” Hong Kong Rugby League chairman Neville Metcalfe said. “We only started in 2015, so to be where we are now is fantastic.
“A couple of years ago we had many doubters and people going ‘it’s such a rugby union hotbed, why bother?’
“The goal was a social thing. There was quite a few of us who had been here a long time and we all love rugby league.
“People would be meeting in various pubs and looking for places to watch rugby league. There was clearly a community and we decided to formalise it. Almost instantly, it was ‘Oh hang on, why don’t we play the game as well?’ ”
Things have moved at an extraordinary pace on the field, with 2017 seeing the first full 13-a-side domestic competition.
The Valley Broncos, Kowloon Tigers, Hong Kong Scottish Reivers and Wan Chai Warriors battled it out over the summer, with the Tigers crowned champions.
Metcalfe said the Hong Kong Rugby Union had been supportive and there had been collaboration with union clubs such as Valley and Scottish.
The HKRL’s annual nines tournament is already three editions old and, after this year saw the first overseas entrants, teams from the likes of Papua New Guinea, Australia, Fiji and the UK have shown interest for next year.
The team for Saturday’s game will feature a number of players who have played union in Hong Kong – Metcalfe said the open-mindedness of the city ensured the traditional barriers between union and league were not an issue – and players must meet five-year residency requirements.
While the standard will be well below that of the HKRU’s Premiership, Metcalfe hopes the lure of playing on the international stage will help to entice players down the track.
“A lot of the Premiership players will probably not come over because we are not at a stage where we can afford to pay players, although we have some good sponsors in place and we are generating our own revenue,” he said. “But if I were in Hong Kong and I’m playing second grade union, would I give it a crack? Of course.”
Metcalfe expects Hong Kong to beat Japan on Saturday, but is far more reserved about the side’s chances come next year’s Championship in Australia against the likes of Canada and Thailand.
“You have got to be confident. However, you have to be realistic,” he said. “There are other nations who are more advanced.
“Some of those nations will more than likely field current or former NRL and Super League players. We won’t be sending that level of player, so of course it’s going to be tough.”
More importantly, Metcalfe hopes the international exposure will help the game establish a genuine foothold in Hong Kong.
“I think we are an attractive proposition, especially because this year is a tier one World Cup,” he said. “Wolf Blass are very interested and that just demonstrates the potential that people are seeing in the game. We are growing very quickly.
“The Emerging Nations World Championship creates visibility, which will create opportunities for sponsors to get further involved in the marketing aspects.”
From a participation sense, the HKRL – which has a total of 400 playing and non-playing members – also runs HKTag, a non-tackle version of the game Metcalfe hopes can act as a pathway to the contact game.
“To grow the game you need international representation. If you can have an international side and if it’s of a fairly decent standard, success drives success,” he said.