World Cup berth on the line as Paul John takes new-look Hong Kong side into Asia Rugby Sevens Series
Max Woodward, Alex McQueen and Ryan Meacheam among those missing as the hosts take on China, Malaysia and the Philippines at King’s Park on Friday
He was thrust into the role only weeks before this year’s Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens and now Paul John has the chance to truly make his mark on his squad during the Asia Rugby Sevens Series.
John has seen a swag of his star players move on and is faced with the unenviable task of overseeing somewhat of a rebuild while also ensuring Hong Kong earn the top-two spot they need to secure their spot in next year’s World Series qualifier and the Rugby World Cup Sevens.
When round one of the three-round Asian series kicks off at King’s Park on Friday, John will be missing almost half the players who played in Hong Kong in April.
Former captain Max Woodward and Cado Lee Ka-to are playing in the Japan Top League, veterans Alex and Tom McQueen are in a pilot training programme in Australia, Ryan Meacheam has returned to New Zealand and Lee Jones is still working his way back from an Achilles injury.
On the flip side, the recent two-round domestic sevens competition and a training camp in Germany have allowed John to unearth some promising new talent.
“We have just got to go as well as we possibly can,” he said. “Sides are getting stronger and we have got to be on top of our game every time we play. If the boys repeat what they did against Germany, they will be in a good place.”
Elite rugby programme players Kane Boucaut and Jack Neville are in the squad, as is 19-year-old flier Fong Kit-fung and former national age grade representative Seb Brien.
Hugo Stiles, who debuted at the Japan Sevens in 2015 but hasn’t been a regular member of the side since, has also earned a spot and John is confident he has assembled a squad capable of some exciting rugby.
“Jack Neville and Hugo Stiles coming in, they are attacking players,” he said. “Hugo’s mindset is to have a go all the time, as is Jack’s. They will cause problems with the way they play the game.
“Kane is a strong running forward and he’s quick as well, so he just needs to do what he’s good at. Seb is a strong ball carrier and strong over the ball as well. He was excellent in Germany and he played well in the domestic sevens.”
Hong Kong won all three rounds to take last year’s Asian series in convincing fashion but will face a much tougher task this time around, as much due to the improvement of their opponents as the uncertainty of their own position.
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Japan fielded a development side last year but will be significantly stronger having been relegated from the World Series, while Sri Lanka and Malaysia are ever-improving.
John’s side face China, Malaysia and the Philippines in pool play on Friday in the new-look tournament that sees all eight teams progress to the quarter-finals on Saturday.
“China look a bit stronger than when we played them in a warm-up tournament for Hong Kong, they have got strength across the board and also a bit more pace than what they had,” John said.
“The last game on Friday [against China] is going to be very important for us to get a better draw on day two.
“The contact area, if it rains like it’s meant to rain, will be vitally important, 50-50 ball on the floor and 50-50 contact, Mark Wright, Toby Fenn and Seb Brien will give us that.”
The women’s Asian series won’t kick off until round two in South Korea in three weeks due to the Women’s Rugby World Cup.
Hong Kong squad:
Ben Rimene (c), Toby Fenn, Mark Wright, Kane Boucaut, Seb Brien, Michael Coverdale, Jamie Hood, Salom Yiu Kam-shing, Jason Jeyam, Hugo Stiles, Fong Kit-fung, Jack Neville.