All change: Japan clash gives revamped Hong Kong a chance to show how far they’ve come
It may sound like a strange thing to say given the opponent, but Hong Kong should enter this week’s Asia Rugby Championship match against Japan feeling less pressure than when they played South Korea two weeks ago.
Of course the opposition is harder, but the situation should be one that has the players salivating.
The game against South Korea was a must-win to show that indeed the elite rugby programme investment was reaping the necessary rewards.
That pressure was certainly evident and at times Hong Kong looked to have the weight of the world on their shoulders, particularly as their opponents came steaming back into the game late.
The ball is now officially rolling and who knows when it will stop.
There should be no such pressure this week – the expectation is not there and another loss against Japan certainly won’t be the end of the world.
As much as Hong Kong would love a win over the seemingly impenetrable Japanese at some point, it realistically isn’t expected to happen yet.
With all that in mind, the players are presented with the perfect opportunity to release the shackles and see just what they are capable of.
Japan are good, but there were some early patches against South Korea last week when the Brave Blossoms showed they have their weaknesses.
Of everything working in Hong Kong’s favour their confidence is one of the most important.
Professional sports teams cannot afford to allow self-doubt to creep in and so far this side seems to be pretty well on top of that.
Of course there are times in games when it may be an issue, but on the whole there is a sense of positivity.
Constant losses at the hands of Japan seem to have done little to dampen their spirits. If anything, it has increased their will to front up to the challenge.
The implementation of the elite rugby programme has the players visibly excited.
As much as coach Leigh Jones tries to keep a lid on things, it is a totally different story when speaking to the players.
The programme has provided the team with real direction and instilled a firm belief within, despite the negativity that has often plagued Hong Kong.
There has at times been talk of the group being underachievers, which is a little off the mark when you consider the limited number of players available to pick from.
While it is easy for some to say they will never catch Japan and that a Rugby World Cup birth is unrealistic, those in the inner sanctum have a much more positive, and more calculated view.
It is refreshing to see such optimism and as long as that is present, becoming a better team will be easier.
That aside, Saturday’s task will still require all the mental application and resolve Hong Kong possess to avoid a similar result to the 38-3 score line from last time around.
Jones’ decision to make wholesale changes was an interesting one, but he has assured us they are not changes “for change’s sake” and will add value to the side.
If so we can expect further improvement, but a total of 10 changes to the starting 15 that defeated South Korea a fortnight ago does raise questions of continuity.
The quality of the players coming in is certainly not in doubt, with prop Ben Higgins and centres Tyler Spitz and Ed Rolston among them.
But changing two-thirds of a side and picking up where you left off, let alone getting better, will be no mean feat.
While building depth is absolutely crucial if they are to move forward – Japan have shown already in this series the beauty of having depth – ideally you would do so while also maintaining your momentum.
Whether they can do it remains to be seen and the fact that a young Japan side has also been experimenting with their line-up will make things easier.
A competitive start is crucial to Hong Kong’s chances on the weekend – hopefully the revamped starting side is ready to deliver it.