There was a “winter break” in Hong Kong rugby over Christmas and New Year, except for the Prudential New Year’s Day Youth Rugby Festival at the Hong Kong Football Club. This year, it celebrated 50years of youth rugby in Hong Kong. A remarkable milestone.
The next round of HKRU matches take place on Jan 7. With little to report it is opportune to look ahead to what 2017 offers Hong Kong Rugby.
- The Men’s Premiership is tighter this season: Valley top the league after 10 matches on 35points, but has lost twice this season, and looked vulnerable in many games. Scottish is second on 29points, and looking potential Championship material. The winner of the league is likely to be between Valley and Scottish. The Championship final could be between any of the six sides, and it would be healthy to have a new name on the silverware, hopefully either Scottish or Kowloon will celebrate on March 11. So, Valley to win the League: Scottish or Kowloon the Championship.
- The Women’s Premiership, benefiting this season with sponsorship by KPMG, remains familiar, with Valley currently top of the league, undefeated, and Gai Wu second. The Women’s Championship will again (most likely) be between these two sides, with Gai Wu hoping to finally break Valley’s remarkable run of victories in the women’s rugby. Valley to win the League: but Gai Wu to edge the Championship final.
- Staying with the women: their creditable performance in the Women’s Rugby World Cup Qualifying tournament in Hong Kong in December means they join Japan as one of Asia’s two teams at the World Cup in 2017 (in August) in Ireland. A terrific achievement. A first for Hong Kong. It’s an opportunity to test Hong Kong against the best, and give Hong Kong overdue recognition for the contribution they have made to Asian and World rugby.
- The women head to Ireland, but the Hong Kong boys U19 team travel to Uruguay to play in the World Rugby Junior Trophy, after winning the Asia Rugby U19’s tournament for the 4th year in succession. This is an opportunity for Hong Kong’s youngsters to shine, and again give Hong Kong kudos for the work the HKRU puts into developing the game at levels.
- At some stage in 2017, Hong Kong men need to close the gap on Japan. This opportunity comes mid-year, in the Asian Championship, between Japan, Korea and Hong Kong…the huge investment in the professional game in Hong Kong warrants some reflection on the pitch. Currently Hong Kong has slipped to 27th in the World Rugby rankings and needs to be more competitive and higher ranked to have the ‘firepower’ to qualify for the Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019. There are only 8 places left for 2019, and the qualification process tough for Asia. With the Hong Kong Women making it to Ireland, the Men will hope to emulate their achievement with qualification for Japan.
- In 2018, the Rugby World Cup Sevens will be held in the USA (San Francisco). The qualification process for Men and Women starts in 2017. There are 24 teams in the men’s competition, which will feature two teams from Asia; hopefully one will be Hong Kong: and 16 teams in the Women’s competition, with two teams to qualify from Asia. And Hong Kong (men) will need to qualify under new coaching and management leadership, after Gareth Baber leaves for Fiji to fill Ben Ryan’s shoes. With two to qualify there’s a realistic chance the Hong Kong Men and Women’s Sevens can qualify for the World Cup Sevens in San Francisco.
Finally, December 2016 was an excellent month for Hong Kong rugby, with the U19 boys and the Hong Kong Women qualifying for their respective World Rugby tournaments. 2017 will need to build on that achievement: both the Men and Women’s Sevens teams need to qualify for San Francisco in 2018. The planning for the 2019 Men’s World Cup and 2020 Olympics (both in Japan) will be on the radar.
At home, Hong Kong should continue to build a competitive league structure, and if possible expand both the Men’s and Women’s Premiership to create more competition, player depth and perhaps introduce a Hong Kong ‘A’ XV to ensure the interest and supply-line continues to feed the national team. The HKRU ambition, is rightly, to qualify for World Rugby’s major global tournaments, and represent Hong Kong at the Olympics and Asian tournaments; this is realistic only with a domestic base that prospers and strengthens.
Grahame Carder is a sports enthusiast, former player and now resident in Hong Kong.