Hong Kong’s date with rugby destiny: mark November 23 on your calendar right now
- The city’s men’s programme is heading off to prepare for the repechage tournament in France where they will get one last shot to make the World Cup
Hong Kong’s rugby universe is now rapidly collapsing unto itself, zeroing in on one day that could drastically change the country’s trajectory when it comes to the sport.
If all goes according to script, Hong Kong’s men’s 15-a-side team will face Canada on November 23 in Marseilles, France for a winner-takes-all match which will give the victor the final spot in next year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan. The game, most pundits agree, will be the most likely outcome of a four-team repechage that also features Kenya and Germany.
Practising for one of the final times under the lights of King’s Park on Thursday night, the men will head off on Tuesday (October 23) to London, then travel to Wales where they will start training at a high performance facility just outside Cardiff, and then play two games (one against the Pro14 Newport-based Dragons development team) and then another against a select team of pro players from around Wales.
Hong Kong will then get a chance to watch the Welsh team (who are ranked third in the world) during training before their game against Scotland on November 3. The next day the team fly to Marseilles and their first game of the repechage tournament is on November 11 against Germany before they meet Kenya on November 17.
Head coach Leigh Jones has long been prepping his squad with his no-nonsense approach (he will take 34 players and trim the roster to 30 before France), installing a number of initiatives to build anticipation.
The squad have had a clock counting down for the past six weeks and Jones has tailored training sessions for the repechage, breaking them into blocks and separate game plans for each team, which even features musical changes for his boys in the changing rooms.
Jones said the idea is to build towards the eventual showdown against Canada, but not lose any focus along the way.
“Every game is crucial, we cannot afford to drop one game,” he said. “So it could come down to one instance and one game, so we have been preparing for that potential eventuality for sure.”
Jones added he hammered the message home before the start of the Premiership that he would use those matches to pick the bulk of his squad. He remained true to his word, selecting Borelli Walsh USRC Tigers back Casey Stone in his 34-man roster, a player who wasn’t even on the national team radar a few months ago but has played exceptionally this season.
“He has got that X-factor,” Jones said. “He has got a lot of experience so I see him as a key player, that is for sure.”
One of the players who was sure to make Jones’ squad is captain and back row James Cunningham, who got his first cap in November 2015. The 28-year-old said the repechage tournament, a unique style of qualification for a sporting event, has taken some getting used to in terms of preparation.
“It’s a bit of an unknown to be honest,” said Cunningham, who plays for Kerry Hotel Kowloon Rugby. “From what I’ve heard, no one’s really experienced anything like this, a month of travel away, then three big games and what could come down to that last big game against Canada. So we’ve just been doing our homework on all three teams and the main focus is us.”
Thursday night’s training session featured some other new faces besides Stone. One of the scrum halfs who will travel to the UK with the squad will be Bryn Phillips, who plays for Kowloon and hails from Cardiff. The 26-year-old said he thinks his kicking game caught the attention of Jones as one of the reasons he was named to the 34-man roster.
“My goal going into this is just to compete for a spot and compete for playing time,” Phillips said, noting there is a massive goal that the squad could encounter a year from now.
If Hong Kong win the repechage, they will be slotted into a group with world number one New Zealand, South Africa, Italy and Namibia.
“We’re looking at suiting up against the All Blacks in the World Cup, that is the ultimate goal,” he said. “That is where all of this is heading.”