Rugby World Cup 2019: Hong Kong coach vows to select his side on HKRU Premiership form
Players hope to impress national 15-a-side coach, Leigh Jones, during local fixtures in Marseille mission
Casey Stone sent a clear message to Hong Kong’s national team coach Leigh Jones during Super Saturday: pick me for Marseilles.
The 33-year-old New Zealand full back led a second-half Borrelli Walsh USRC Tigers comeback against Kerry Hotel Kowloon during the first game of the Hong Kong men’s premiership season, scoring a hat-trick in the span of a few minutes. The Tigers ended up winning 31-26.
Jones is in the process of selecting his 30-man roster for a trip to France in November where the national squad will participate in a repechage tournament for the final spot at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
While Stone isn’t currently part of the national team programme and only recently became eligible to suit up, his play in the opening match exemplifies the many conundrums Jones will face in the coming weeks. The Marseille tournament will see the team play against Germany, Kenya and Canada, in that order from November 17 to 23, in a winner take all format for the final 20th spot.
Stone said he knows his chances of making the roster are “pretty slim” but that is not going to stop him from trying to impress the national team coach up until November when Jones has to submit his official list.
“I’ll give it a crack, the Hong Kong coaches have said that reputation doesn’t count for much,” Stone said. “And also that none of last year’s performances count, it all goes on the first rounds, so I’ll put my best foot forward for France.”
Jones delivered a decisive statement in a recent Hong Kong Rugby Union press release, noting he expects some “high profile casualties” in naming his roster and that he will basically use the first five rounds of the premiership to select his squad. He added any player who made the squad last season could be cut if they “can’t regain their form or work ethic from last season.”
“That’s the nature of professional rugby,” he added. “You can’t select players on potential or past performance, you have to go on form.”
One of the players trying to retain his spot is Herbert Smith Freehills HKU Sandy Bay prop Jack Delaforce. The 28-year-old Australian, who stands at two-metres tall, was one of the lone bright spots during his club’s inaugural match. While the team lost 45-13 to Natixis, Delaforce, who got his first cap for the national squad back in 2014, delivered some epic tackles and showcased his defensive strength.
Delaforce said when it comes to the realisation that Jones is in the stands keeping an eye on his performance, he has to push it out of his mind for 80 minutes.
“My weekend goal is to perform for Sandy Bay,” he said. “If I can do that and play my best that is all I can hope for, and then I think the coaches are going to pick the guys who look like they’re in the best form right now. So if I can put my best foot forward for my club, I’ve just got to hope that I’m also in that other conversation.”
The selection process leaves the premiership coaches in a funny position when compiling their line-ups for each week’s fixtures. Sam Purvis, who usually slots in on the right wing for the national team, was playing inside centre against Kowloon. Tigers head coach Samuel Hocking said injuries forced his hand with Purvis. Hocking also noted Tyler Spitz, 28, who played outside centre and got his first cap for the national side back in 2014, was also impressive in the season opener and already looked like he was in mid-season form. Hockings’ Tigers also feature lock Craig Lodge, who recently joined the national team’s elite rugby programme.
If Hong Kong secure the final spot for the World Cup, it will not be without a sense of pending dread as they will be slotted into a group with number one perennial powerhouse New Zealand, and South Africa, who recently upset the All Blacks with a 36-34 win in the Rugby Championship and are currently ranked fifth in the world. The group is rounded out with Italy (14th) and Namibia (22nd).
Hong Kong are the highest ranked side as of right now for the repechage at 21, followed by Canada (23rd), Kenya (28) and Germany (29).
The men’s premiership kicks off its second weekend of action this Saturday with Bloomberg HK Scottish playing Kowloon at SKM, and Sandy Bay playing Societe Generale Valley and the Tigers taking on Natixis, both at Kings Park.