Rugby World Cup Repechage 2019: five Hong Kong players who could become heroes in France
- Hong Kong has finalised its roster for the repechage
- Leigh Jones’ men begin their campaign on Sunday against Germany
Athletes’ careers are defined by statistics, but legends are carved on the grandest of stages. Hong Kong couldn’t ask for a better theatre, starting on Sunday (11pm Hong Kong time). Three games, three wins in the sleepy port city of Marseille, France at the 2019 World Cup Repechage and they’ll punch a historic ticket to next year’s World Cup in Japan.
Each game is going to come down to a few plays, a penalty kick here, a missed pass there, a timely try from an unlikely source. So who should you keep an eye out for now that coach Leigh Jones has finalised his 30-man squad?
Check back on Sunday for the live link to watch the game online via the Hong Kong Rugby Union and, until then, here’s five names to memorise who may become heroes in Marseille.
It’s quite possible no one was more impressive for Hong Kong’s sevens squad during the Asia Rugby Sevens Series than 19-year-old Max Denmark. A product of Hong Kong’s youth programme, he’s the perfect combination of size and speed at 1.84 metres and 83 kilograms, literally bowling over players and scoring at will. He’s young, hungry, a ferocious tackler and able to force defenders to pay special attention to him.
Alongside veteran Salom Yiu Kam-shing, Hong Kong’s second most capped player, the two make up a terrifying wing combination of size, grit and speed.
Denmark got his first cap in 2017 for the sevens squad during that year’s Asian Sevens Series, and was also a stalwart on the national squad’s U20 XV side. The team has plenty of veteran presence, from captain James Cunningham to hooker Ben Roberts, but if they’re going to win the repechage, they will need the next generation to leap onto the big stage at the right moment. Put money on Denmark making an unforgettable impression.
The 33-year-old New Zealander burst onto the national scene in his first game of the Premiership season for Borrelli Walsh USRC Tigers, scoring three tries and quickly grabbing the attention of Jones. The speedy full back hasn’t let up in a quest for his first cap, and gave Jones no choice in terms of selecting him in the final squad.
He scored a try in Hong Kong’s first warm-up game against the Newport Gwent Dragons Development squad, then followed with three more against a Crawshays RFC invitational XV team in Wales. The normally tight-lipped Jones also openly praised Stone for playing his way onto the team before the squad headed to Europe.
If he continues at this pace, he will give opponents fits all over the field in France, and having a dangerous full back who can kick and run gives Hong Kong yet another weapon. Now he just has to keep catching lightning in a bottle for a few more games.
Liam Slatem/Bryn Phillips
Scrum half is probably the most underrated position in rugby. It’s usually occupied by a smaller player whose experience lies in digging balls out of scrums and starting everything off with a perfect pass to the fly half, the conduit to the backs.
Slatem looks to be the starter, but newcomer Phillips, who originally hails from Wales, has apparently put a lot of pressure on him.
Slatem, 29, got his first cap in 2017 against Kenya, and plays for Herbert Smith Freehills HKU Sandy Bay in the Premiership. Phillips, 26, is hoping to get his first cap in France, plays for Kerry Hotel Kowloon and also has an exceptional boot, which could be his X factor.
Positional fights can stress out players if they’re not handled right by management, but you can bet Jones, who is meticulous in how he handles each player and their accompanying personality, made sure both got an ample look-in during the warm-up matches, and whoever starts will have a legitimate replacement ready to step in at a moment’s notice.
Surrendering his New Zealand passport to win gold at this year’s Asian Games sounds like the perfect swansong for the 34-year-old, who got his first cap in 2013. So what about an encore?
Rimene isn’t the flashiest of players, but offers a calming influence on and off the field. Nerves will be jangling in France and mistakes will be amplified, so having experienced veterans around to temper an anxious squad will be a godsend.
Rimene, who is entering the final stage of his rugby career, could go out in Hollywood fashion if he ends up scoring a decisive try in Marseille. Then, how about running out against New Zealand, his birth country, next year at the 2019 Rugby World Cup as a potential final cap? Sounds like a storybook ending for one of Hong Kong’s best-respected and highly regarded players.
Here’s hoping he gets a chance to deliver a dagger of a drop kick late in the second half to seal a victory, or squeak through the line to break a deadlocked game in typical Rimene fashion.