How two girls have made it big thanks to Hong Kong’s inclusive rugby culture

Tangible proof abounds of youngsters finding their way though sports leagues made possible by this weekend

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 April, 2017, 5:07pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 April, 2017, 10:35pm

OK, you are a hardcore rugby guy. Sevens is insignificant because 15-a-side is the only game and the Hong Kong Sevens has nothing to do with rugby and everything to do with partying.

Great, I got it. But good, bad or indifferent for many of us who did not grow up in a rugby culture, this event has been our first exposure to the sport. Where you take it from there is entirely up to the individual. Just ask local businessman Robert Esser.

A self-confessed sports guy, Esser grew up in California and Arizona and when he arrived in Asia almost 30 years ago admits he knew little about rugby. But he was intrigued by the sport and its camaraderie and eventually became a rugby referee.

When it came time for his daughter, Katherine, to get involved in sports, he said there was little question what it would be. “I believe in team sports for kids and rugby is the most organised and well-run community-based sport in Hong Kong bar none,” he said.

His daughter showed an early passion and proficiency for the sport and rose up through the ranks playing on Hong Kong national age grade teams.

“Her goal soon became to get a scholarship to play university in the States. Now she has achieved that and will start at Notre Dame college in the fall,” said Esser.

Notre Dame college in Ohio claims to be the only fully funded NCAA Division One women’s rugby programme in the US.

“Growing up in Hong Kong, you don’t really have many other sporting options than to play rugby,” said Katherine. “Every person I have met has pretty much played the game in one form or another. It is such a community and the club you sign up to be a part of becomes an extended family.”

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When she does arrive at school in the autumn, she will not have to look far for local inspiration at the highest levels. Penn State’s women rugby programme is a true dynasty, having won 10 national titles since the inception of D1 in 1991, including the last five.

A former captain of the Hong Kong women’s national team, Penn State senior Kyla Chipman, is a four-time national champion. Like Esser, Kyla’s father, Rob, is originally from Arizona and has been in Asia for over 30 years.

“Growing up where I did, there was no rugby culture so I had little influence on Kyla choosing the sport,” said Chipman. “To be honest, she got into the game because her brother was playing it and anything her brother did, she had to do.”

A natural athlete, Kyla also excelled at basketball and golf. But there was something about rugby that held sway.

“I was fully immersed in the sport and its culture the first day I picked up the ball,” said Kyla.

“First it was the high school team and then the programmes at the Football Club and eventually the national team. The rugby culture inherent in Hong Kong introduced and groomed me for the game and brought me to where I am today.”

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An accomplished athlete himself, Rob is still amazed at the depth of the bonds in rugby. “There is a communal vibe and a genuine family atmosphere in rugby that I have never seen in any other organised sport,” he said. “The rugby community bands together like no other.”

Part of the reason the rugby community is so cohesive is they have to look out for each other because it is still a niche sport in many parts of the world. If you get it and you love the game, then you are one of us. If you don’t, then let’s have a beer anyway.

Here in Hong Kong, where land is scarce and there is little indigenous sporting history, the tireless efforts of rugby organisers on the grass roots level and beyond has created a sporting culture from basically nothing.

The legacy of their work is all around. There are hundreds of stories of how local youngsters found a path and direction in their life thanks to involvement in the game, not to mention churning out players at the highest collegiate level.

It also helps to have the highest profile sporting event in Hong Kong. The funds the Hong Kong Rugby Union uses to make the game so accessible to the public are a direct result of this weekend.

They give back unfailingly and that in itself is a invaluable sporting legacy, regardless of how many players are on the pitch.