Hong Kong under the pump as they chase a World Cup berth crucial to continued progress of professional sevens programme
Paul John’s side need everything to go their way as they look to overhaul South Korea and grab the all-important second spot in the Asia Rugby Sevens Series
The progress of Hong Kong’s professional sevens programme is on the line this weekend as the Asia Rugby Sevens Series comes to a close in Sri Lanka.
In what is one of Hong Kong’s biggest tests since sevens went professional in 2013, Paul John’s third-placed side must win their way into the top two to secure their spot in next year’s Rugby World Cup Sevens and World Series qualifier.
The professional programme has ensured continual, if gradual, progress and Hong Kong coach John knows the importance of his side maintaining their standing as the second best team in Asia.
“It’s obviously a big thing because the World Cup is a massive competition and it’s good to get into top quality competitions for the progress of the programme and the development of the players. Everybody wants to play in big tournaments,” he said.
The loss of the likes of Max Woodward and Alex McQueen hasn’t helped Hong Kong’s cause in this tournament, but their new-look side showed with their second place in the opening round on home soil that they are still more than capable.
With Japan likely to finish first, South Korea are Hong Kong’s biggest rivals for second spot and finishing third in round two of the series could come back to haunt John’s side.
Korea are two points ahead of Hong Kong after winning that round, meaning Hong Kong must finish two places above South Korea or they could be relying on the head-to-head record.
“There are a lot of permutations but if we have a really good tournament then hopefully we will be OK,” John said. “If we meet Korea along the way that will help us, provided we get a positive result from it. Whoever wins that game will be ahead in the head to head.”
Hong Kong face Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines in pool play, meaning they should then avoid Japan until the final and potentially encounter Korea in the semis.
“It means that we get a really good game on day one [against Japan] and depending on what happens at the end of day one will be where we cross over. It is always difficult to predict so we can only worry about ourselves really,” John said.
“Sri Lanka will be stronger being at home and China gave us a difficult game at the end of the tournament last time.”
John has made one change to his side, with debutant Max Denmark coming in for Fong Kit-fung, who injured his ankle last round.
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“Max is very quick and he’s played wing for the under 20s, he’s a back-row forward as well as playing wing,” John said. “He gives us a bit of speed out wide and I’m looking forward to watching him play. He’s powerful and he chases kick-offs really well, so it’s exciting for him.”
Hong Kong’s women will be looking to emulate their fourth-place finish in the opening round of their series, which has been trimmed to two legs due to August’s Women’s Rugby World Cup.
Hong Kong fell to Kazakhstan in the play-off for third three weeks ago and coach Anna Richards knows beating any of the top three sides in Japan, China and the Kazakhs is a tough ask.
“China and Japan are always a great challenge for us and it’s almost like Kazakhstan haven’t been away, I thought they came back and they played really well,” Richards said, referring to Kazakhstan’s recent absence from the series because of administrative issues.
Sham Wai-sum, Jessica Ho Wai-on, Agnes Chan Tsz-ching and Poon Hoi-yan come into a side that Richards says has been training well but are still short of sevens fitness, with the latter three making their international sevens debut.
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“The first leg was pretty difficult and we didn’t have a great lead into that; I think the girls are more comfortable in the sevens environment now,” she said.
“One of big focuses in the past few weeks has been retaining possession. What I liked about the first tournament was that we got a good look at the top three so we will be going into this tournament better for that.”