Hong Kong impress in Asian championship, but are hard work and planning or Tyler Spitz’s ‘fables on life’ driving progress?
Leigh Jones reflects on his side’s performances against Japan and South Korea and gives an insight into life as a top-level coach
It’s always good, after the dust has settled, to reflect on events past. With the recent Asia Rugby Championship in mind, my reflections take me back to well before the beginning of the competition to the visit of the Chiefs.
Our visiting allies have proved an invaluable resource over the past three seasons in allowing us to test our mettle against a young, physical and skillful group.
This season was no exception with their squad brimming with youthful talent, all of whom were keen to stake their claim for senior squad selection and fulfil their Super Rugby dream.
This emphasis means that the numerous joint training sessions that take part over the course of their visit have a real purpose – our guys are seeking ARC selection while theirs are trying to simply get noticed amongst a pretty competitive and talented group.
Hence the game on the final Saturday proves a meaningful occasion for all, with private agendas at the forefront for many players and coaches. The players – to get picked. The coaches – to evidence firm progress and illustrate we are going in the right direction as a relatively new professional group.
While we did not manage to win, we did show some clear progress. All in all, it was a pleasing start and maybe a solid springboard to bigger and better things in the forthcoming Asia Rugby Championship. However, with sport being sport, you never can tell!
While it was clear from the Chiefs visit we had grown as a group, with faster, fitter, stronger being one of our many strap lines, it meant nothing if we couldn’t transfer it into our performances in the Asian championship.
The lull between the Chiefs visit and our first game was a twitchy period for all, made worse by having to watch back-to-back Korea v Japan matches.
Was it me or did both teams look fitter, faster and bigger than in previous seasons? Were we good enough to combat their size and athleticism? Had we actually made the progress I thought we had, or was I simply kidding myself? What had we missed in terms of our preparation?
These and other thoughts constantly bombard a coaches’ thought process, while having to be balanced by always portraying an image of absolute confidence and certainty to anyone who may be interested.
Going into the first game against Japan in Tokyo I was unsure of what to expect. Fortunately, the players fronted up.
Their performance in a 29-17 loss further compounded the progress we had made against the Chiefs, while also showing the players that they could now compete with the big boys of Asian rugby.
Although we didn’t get the desired result, I think we earned the respect of the Japanese with more than one of my old coaching colleagues in Japan remarking on our impressive progress.
However the Japanese, alert to a new potential threat, would certainly up their game in the next encounter and look to restore the status quo that had existed for many years.
I was desperate to ensure Japan wouldn’t pull “a Korea” on us after we performed well in the first game, only to be humbled by 80 points a week later.
Watch: Highlights of Hong Kong v Japan in Tokyo
The players responded admirably to the challenge with that week’s training probably the best I have experienced during my time in Hong Kong.
I remember chatting to the other coaches early that week and suggesting that we may have achieved a tipping point with the squad.
No longer was training coach led but it instead became player driven, with the senior guys like Nick Hewson, Jamie Hood, Ben Rimene, Dan Falvey, Ben Roberts and Jamie Tsang taking the initiative in moving the group to new heights.
I remarked to the coaching team ahead of the rematch: “Japan will have to be good this week as we are in a good place.”
Unfortunately, they were! While we put in another admirable performance and achieved a closer score than in previous years (0-16), it still highlights the gains we must make if we are going to get that elusive win against our top rivals and roadblocks to the World Cup.
Reflecting on those two opening matches, we were reasonably pleased. However, looking immediately toward the next task as coaches tend to do, we knew that solid progress meant little if we could not secure victories against Korea.
On discussion with the coaches, we decided to go big and seize upon the newly formed tipping point evidenced by the players in an attempt not just to win but to put clear daylight between the Koreans and ourselves.
Hong Kong power through ‘tipping point’ to land one of the best wins of the Leigh Jones era against South Korea
I remember thinking the morning of the first game in Yesan that coaching is sometimes a strange and paradoxical occupation. Where I should probably have been at my most nervous for this game, I was surprisingly calm and confident that the players had prepared themselves well for the battle ahead.
So much so that following the prized jersey presentation at the hotel where the players seemed a little too tense and full of nervous energy, I asked Tyler Spitz to provide the group with one of his hilarious and now legendary “fables on life”.
Watch: Highlights of Hong Kong v South Korea at Hong Kong Football Club
It seemed to do the trick in breaking the tension and the rest, as they say, was history as we went on to sweep Korea for the second time in as many seasons and prove that our progress over the season was not a glitch.
Moving forward, our goals are now clear. We know we have to continue to strive and work even harder to both close a gap on one hand (with Japan) and widen a breach on the other (Korea).
Leigh Jones turns focus to youth as Hong Kong crush South Korea to end Asia Rugby Championship on high
I believe this playing group can achieve both over the coming year, leading into the all-important Rugby World Cup qualifying campaign in 2017-18.
In signing off, I’d like to revisit the strange and paradoxical role of the coach. While I and the other coaches like to think that a small part of this year’s progress was down to the planning, application and hard work of all concerned, Tyler Spitz has another take, insisting quite categorically over a beer after the last game that his selection of fables on life were undoubtedly the key to our success!
Who am I to argue?