2019 Rugby World Cup Repechage: Hong Kong’s rugby machine embarrassed by Germany’s start-up programme
- Hong Kong were outplayed and outsmarted by a lower ranked team with much less experience
In the lead-up to “the biggest moment in our history”, Hong Kong’s rugby team talked a big game.
After head coach Leigh Jones finalised his 30-man roster for the 2019 Rugby World Cup Repechage, he declared the team the “most prepared squad ever”.
Hong Kong Rugby Union chief rugby operations officer Dai Rees ramped up expectations, saying: “We could not be going into a tournament on a better footing”.
And right before their opening match against Germany, Rees doubled down on how confident he was of his boys, saying this tournament is the culmination of three years of continuous work in bringing Hong Kong rugby to their highest level ever after they missed the 2015 World Cup.
“Not only is this squad stronger, fitter and faster, it is both physically and mentally prepared for what lies ahead,” Rees said.
Jones, who has a PhD in sports psychology, said his team were excited and not nervous about this historic chance to qualify for next year’s 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Trying to explain what happened next is a serious head-scratcher, as everyone got swept away in the hyperbole and the hype created around the squad heading into the repechage.
So enter Germany, the lowest ranked team in the tournament, a full eight spots behind Hong Kong. A squad comprised of part-time, semi-pro players scattered around Europe, up against the massive machine that is the Hong Kong Rugby Union.
Hong Kong’s 30-strong squad are the cream of the Elite Rugby Programme, all full-time professionals and residents of the Hong Kong Sports Institute, which also includes salaried coaches and staff.
This includes a Premiership league where coaches are paid by the HKRU, and everyone plays against and with each other, which means chemistry should not be an issue.
Germany’s rugby programme was dead in the water until earlier this year when Swiss juice billionaire Hans-Peter Wild spent millions to get it off life support and fund the team to go to the repechage (he has also said the money train will stop after Marseille).
Part of that cash was for new head coach Mike Ford, who has only been at the helm since September. The Englishman called it a “big challenge” to try to inject new life into a rugby programme that was in danger of folding early in 2018. Ford is on a sabbatical from his regular job with the Dallas Griffins, an American rugby team that hopes to join Major League Rugby next season.
The Germans also did not play any lead-up games to the repechage, possibly because of funding restraints.
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Tough first game of the RWC Repechage Qualifiers as Germany take the win. @hkrugby 9 - 26 @drvrugby Next up, Hong Kong take on Kenya Saturday, 17th November, 1pm local time, 8pm Hong Kong time. #letsgohongkong #hkrugby #rwc2019 香港於「欖球世界盃2019終極外圍賽」首場賽事以9-26告負德國。 港隊將重整旗鼓, 於11月17日下星期六下午1時(香港時間,下午8時)進行第二場賽事, 對戰肯雅。
A post shared by Hong Kong Rugby (@hkrugby) on Nov 11, 2018 at 10:26am PST
Their place in the repechage also only came after the squad were bumped up three spots at last year’s scandal-hit Rugby Europe International Championship where Belgium, Spain and Romania were all deducted points for fielding ineligible players (a tournament in which Germany got blown out in all of their games).
They were then hammered by Samoa in another effort to qualify for the World Cup, and many thought the country was just happy to take part in the repechage.
How this all adds up to a 26-9 win over Hong Kong on Sunday is mind-boggling.
Did the players let their coach down on the field? Did Ford get the better of Jones or did Germany catch lightning in a bottle? It’s tough to say but it appears all of these things happened to some degree at Marseille’s Stade Delort.
Live streaming platform RugbyPass called it a “major upset”, while Rugby World Cup’s official recap said the Germans stunned and shocked Hong Kong. Few predicted this and few saw it coming.
The chances of Hong Kong now winning the repechage are slim to none. They are not officially elimiated but need big wins in both their next games to potentially move on.
Unless something extraordinary happens, Hong Kong’s repechage is most likely over as quickly as it began.
The programme now needs to figure out if they use the final two games to give young players some valuable experience as they move forward and try to make sense of all of this, or do they go for broke hoping the tournament falls in their favour and they get a chance at redemption against a Canadian squad who, quite frankly, look unbeatable.
Whatever happens – and we now fear the worst – the HKRU is going to have to offer up an answer that will be a tough sell.
The cold, chilly air of Marseille has brought Hong Kong’s rugby programme to a moment of reckoning, in the worst possible of ways.
Where they go from here is anyone’s guess.