CUP OF NATIONS HELPS HONG KONG PREPARE FOR FUTURE RUGBY WORLD CUP QUALIFICATION
The HKRU will mark the November test window with the hosting of the Cup of Nations starting on Friday (11 Nov.). The four-team competition sees 2015 champions Russia return as the early favourites to defend their title, while Zimbabwe also return. Debutants Papua New Guinea round out the three teams taking on Hong Kong over three match days, (11, 15 and 19 Nov.).
Russia, the highest ranked team in the competition at number 21 in the world, are returning in good form, having maintained an active test schedule since last year’s appearance. Hong Kong, runners-up in 2015, are the second highest ranked team, at 25th in the world, while Zimbabwe is 37th. Papua New Guinea are 69th in the world, having not played a test in over a year.
National coach Leigh Jones has dual objectives for the Cup, “We want to win of course, but we are also looking to further broaden our depth and enhance our experience against teams from outside of the region. In the long-term, we are increasing our exposure to teams that we could potentially meet in Rugby World Cup qualification,” said Jones.
Jones has been working with an expanded training squad of 36 players to prepare for the tournament. Those preparations were enhanced by a new format in the Rugbypass.com Premiership that saw Hong Kong’s probables and possibles given an extended break from the Premiership to participate in an international training week ahead of kick-off.
The week allowed Jones to put his side – comprised primarily of Elite Rugby Programme players, Hong Kong sevens squad members, semi-professional players in the domestic leagues and National Age Grade graduates, through their paces ahead of kick-off.
“During the training week, we played a mini Cup of Nations format, effectively simulating the varying styles we are likely to face in the Cup of Nations,” said Jones.
“This is a great competition for us as it offers the opportunity to expose our players to high intensity matches against teams outside of Asia. With three very different tests in the space of nine days, we will need to be smart in how we use the squad and in selecting the right players to suit the different approaches we will see,” Jones added.
The training squad includes several Premiership players on the cusp of earning first caps, including hooker Ben Roberts, who was slated to be capped in Kenya before picking up an injury in the warm-up match in Africa. No.8 Thomas Lamboley is another notable Premiership player that has recently become eligible and could be in line for his first cap. The Cup could also provide a first glimpse for many of Hong Kong born lock Will Eversfield, who has impressed national selectors since returning from studying overseas and joining Tigers for the current Premiership season. HK Scottish winger Marcus Ramage and HKFC flanker Mat Lamont have also been included in the training squad after becoming eligible.
Nine members of the sevens side that won the Asian Sevens title last month have been included, amongst them Jason Jeyam, who had an outstanding senior sevens debut in Hong Kong’s final tournament in Sri Lanka and is now poised to add a senior fifteens cap to his portfolio. Calvin Hunter is another young star from the sevens realm on the verge of a first fifteens cap for the SAR. Jeyam and Hunter are joined by two other recent National Age Grade graduates, forwards JW Markley and the already capped Finlay Field, in the training squad.
Former sevens captain Jamie Hood, who stood down from the Asian sevens campaign to accept a one-season contract with Ricoh Black Rams in Japan, will also be available for selection for the latter rounds, as he seeks to keep his hand in for Hong Kong selection across both fifteens and sevens.
With the support of World Rugby, who have sanctioned the competition, the participating teams have been carefully selected with an eye on Hong Kong’s potential opponents in the Rugby World Cup 2019 qualification stages.
“The tournament will provide some important insight in the early stages of our move to professionalism, specifically where we are and where we still need to improve. We will be able to expose more players to teams outside of Asia, which is particularly important given the new pathways established for Rugby World Cup qualification,” Jones added.
Under the new Rugby World Cup qualification format, Asia will send its top-ranked side, traditionally Japan, through to the world championship as Asia 1. Asia 2, the spot filled by Hong Kong in the 2015 Rugby World Cup qualification campaign, will now play a home and away series versus Oceania 4, with the winners advancing to the penultimate stage of qualification, an international repechage series, which in the past has featured Russia and Zimbabwe.
First up for Hong Kong is Papua New Guinea, in their first test match action since August 2015. Papua New Guinea were successful in their last outings – wins over Tahiti, American Samoa and the Solomon Islands, en route to claiming the 2015 Oceania Cup.
“It’s been difficult to get information on Papua New Guinea, so they are a bit of an unknown but we expect a tough encounter,” said Jones.
“They should be quite physical and hard-hitting, so we will need to counter that with a very structured game and will rely on our set piece to perform,” Jones added.
Following last summer’s tour of Kenya, Hong Kong will have a second opportunity to look at potential African competition come Rugby World Cup qualification time, in Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe will be hunting for its first win in Hong Kong and its first test victory in over a year, after losing all three matches here last year, including a 30-11 loss against Hon Kong. The Sables’ most recent test action was this summer when they lost to Namibia, Kenya and Uganda in the Africa Cup.
In Zimbabwe, Jones expects a similar style to what Hong Kong faced in Kenya. “Zimbabwe aren’t too dissimilar to Kenya in that they are very athletic and play a very individual style of rugby. We will need to rely on our collective strength and discipline to overcome their individual skills.”
Once again Russia is likely to prove the biggest hurdle to Hong Kong’s efforts to win the Cup for the first time. Russia has had a particularly muscular build-up, having played their most recent tests in June – against tier one unions Canada and USA (both losses). Prior to that, Russia dispatched Spain, Germany and Portugal in the 2016 European Nations Cup, losing only to Romania (30-0).
“Our approach for Russia will be almost diametrically opposite to the first two matches. They are power orientated with a big set piece and play a Northern Hemisphere style game. We will need a different philosophy for this test, one where we try to bring a high tempo into the game, negate their forward dominance and rely on more of our game-changers in the backline,” Jones added.
Looking further down the line there is a lot of value to be had in the Cup of Nations according to Jones. “It will be useful in terms of seeing some of the teams we may one day have to face to reach a Rugby World Cup. Teams won’t change their approach dramatically across the coming two or three seasons, so these matches can help shape our philosophy for the qualification stages.”
HKRU Cup of Nations Match Schedule*
|Friday, 11 Nov.||Russia v Zimbabwe||17.00||Kings Park|
|Hong Kong v PNG||19.00||Kings Park|
|Tues., 15 Nov.||Russia v PNG||17.00||Kings Park|
|Hong Kong v Zimbabwe||19.00||Kings Park|
|Sat., 19 Nov.||Zimbabwe v PNG||14.00||Hong Kong Football Club|
|Hong Kong v Russia||17.00||Hong Kong Football Club|
* Admission to all matches is Free.