Moment of truth: Hong Kong out to make history in World Cup qualifying repechage
- Hong Kong play Germany in their first game on Sunday in Marseille, France
- Winners will earn a place against New Zealand, South Africa, Italy and Namibia in 2019
Hong Kong are bracing for the biggest tournament in their rugby history in taking on Germany on Sunday in the first match of their World Cup qualifying repechage in Marseille, France.
Favourites Canada open their campaign against Kenya with the winner of the four-team, round-robin competition qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Japan.
The winner will go into pool B against defending champions New Zealand, South Africa, Italy and Namibia.
“It is the biggest tournament in our history without a doubt,” said Dai Rees, chief rugby operations officer at the Hong Kong Rugby Union. “We’ve been in qualifying before, of course, but this team is stronger, fitter and faster than any we have ever put out. We’re potentially on the brink of achieving something that no one would have thought possible given our small playing base.
“The players understand where we are now. They are sniffing a World Cup game against New Zealand or South Africa, and they believe in themselves.”
Rees hailed the squad as the culmination of an intense and years-long process that started after Hong Kong failed to qualify for the 2015 tournament. The intervening years have seen the creation of the first professional 15s programme, the Elite Rugby Programme, and the hosting of an annual tournament with teams Hong Kong expect to meet at the World Cup qualification stage.
“We’re entering this competition off a continuous three-year preparation period, where we’ve frequently played teams like these. Canada are a bit of an unknown, as they shouldn’t really be here by form, but here they are. But we’ve played teams at the same or similar level before, so there are no surprises.
“Not only is this squad, stronger, fitter and faster, it is both physically and mentally prepared for what lies ahead,” Rees said.
Ranked 29th in the world, eight spots behind Hong Kong, Germany’s last international was in the summer, losing a home and away series to Samoa en route to the repechage. Under a storied rugby tactician in coach Mike Ford, who joined the German set-up late in the piece, the question remains how prepared they are for the contest ahead given the short lead-in.
On the eve of the tournament, Hong Kong coach Leigh Jones said: “There’s a real excitement – not a nervousness – an excitement. We’re in a good place.”
Jones has based his selection on form, from the domestic Premiership and the Welsh warm-up campaign. The squad, bar niggles to players like sevens captain Ben Rimene, has been a finalised match squad for nearly two weeks.
Jones is expecting his opponents to bring the basics, but it’s the extras that cause concern, saying, “I think we’ll see a structured game. That’s what we know about Germany traditionally, but the unknown variable is Mike Ford. He’s a world-class coach and can do tremendous things with a backline.”
“We will need to manage the occasion and we’re approaching it like strictly another game. Our preparation has been the same. It’s business as usual and we have to approach it as such.
“We need to get our set piece right and play at our speed. We want to keep the ball alive and play at a high tempo and get some momentum going.”