16th Nov 2023

The rugby sevens squads of Hong Kong, China will take their first steps along the hoped-for Road to the 2024 Olympics in the Asia Rugby Olympic Qualifier at Yokoko Sakura Stadium in Osaka, Japan from 18-19 November 2023.

The winners of the men’s and women’s competitions will advance directly to the Paris Olympics next summer, while spots will be reserved for the runners-up at an international play-off, giving the teams multiple chances to make even more history in the coming months after their Asian Games success in Hangzhou, China.

Both squads enter with significant momentum. The men defended their Asian Games gold from 2018 in September, while the women captured an historic first ever medal, taking bronze. They have carried on strongly since then with the men finishing as runners-up in the Asia Rugby Sevens Series (it is the 12th straight season that Hong Kong, China has finished as either winner (5 times) or runners-up); the women finished third on the table. That is vital for Paul John, head of the Rugby Sevens programme at the Hong Kong Sports Institute (HKSI).

“Sevens is a momentum game,” said John, who will serve as manager for both teams alongside men’s coach Jevon Groves and new women’s coach Andy Vilk in Osaka.

“The challenge for the coaches has been balancing the training and prep, against how much rugby the players have had in the last 20 weeks. Just in the last seven or eight weeks we have had two Asian series events, the Asian Games, and training camps with China for the boys and with Spain and Team Great Britain for the girls.

“I don’t think they could play any more rugby than they have – it’s now just a matter of getting them comfortable and confident that they’ve done enough, and keeping the batteries charged. There’s a lot of excitement at it, we don’t need to tell anyone what’s on this, they know it,” John added. That sense of excitement was echoed by pivot Russell Webb, a veteran of the last campaign in Korea.

“In training, we’ve been really honest with ourselves and our standards have been high. I think we are in a good position to get the job done this weekend. This is the closest we’ve ever been and I think that shows from our recent successes in the Hong Kong Sevens, the Asian series, and the Asian Games,” said Webb.

The fact that the squads for Osaka are largely the same as those in Hangzhou points to a well-crafted programme of player rotation and recovery at the HKSI, and further contributes to the confidence levels ahead of the tournament’s start. There are just two changes from the Asian Games teams with Bryn Phillips coming in for the injured Hugo Stiles in the men’s team, and Poon Hoi Yan coming in for Ho Tsz Wun in the women’s team.

For John, the sides are ready: “To win some very, very close games like we did, especially againstJapan in the last seconds in Hangzhou, proves what we can do, and gives us the confidence we need. For the girls to get that first medal is a massive achievement, and beating China for the first time since 2015 in Thailand as well. They expect things of themselves now, and rightly so; we just have to take the group as it comes.” The parity of Asian sevens means no one can afford to rest on their laurels with so much at stake.

In Osaka, the men top Pool B with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Singapore and Thailand, while hosts Japan are in Pool A with China, South Korea and India.

The women are second seeds in Pool E behind Asian Games gold medallists China, and ahead of India and Guam, while Japan lead Pool D with Thailand and Kazakhstan in the seven-team tournament. As ever, the teams will be focusing on their play more than the opposition.

“We know what Japan play like, we know what Korea play like, and China, the key is that we play like what we play like,” said the long-time Hong Kong and Wales Sevens coach.

“We just have to do our job and get us right: back ourselves, do things without hesitation, be aggressive in defence and positive in attack, and help each other. The game doesn’t change that much, really.”

John, who was in a similar role at the last Asian Olympic qualifier in Incheon, South Korea when the men fell to the hosts in the gold medal match, commented on the changes since then, saying, “The state of both teams is so different now. Four years ago, it was really difficult to get 14 or 15 eligible players, now we have two full squads training against each other.

“The girls back then you could have picked the squad months in advance, and now the competition in the squad is high and it’s difficult to pick a team. The biggest thing is that we’ve been able to go to more tournaments and play in Hong Kong, Canada, Spain; the boys have been playing tournaments; even the academy and development players have played in tournaments. We are not just looking at this moment but preparing for what comes after also,” John added.

That sentiment was shared by Webb: “We have definitely improved since the last Asian Olympic qualifiers. Nothing can prepare you for that heartache of four years ago, and that moment still stings for a big group of us, but we learned a lot from it. We are a different team even though we are largely the same players. “We have a wider squad now. We have loads of guys that have played multiple Asian Games, World Series, test matches, U20s, Junior World trophies. Training against them is as difficult as playing against our other competitors, because of what they bring to the environment every day. It has taken a whole team effort to get to where we are.

“We are representing Hong Kong, China; our friends and families, and all the people of Hong Kong. When we put on that jersey it is the biggest honour we can have, and a privilege. We know that if we play to our ability, we can skyrocket this organization into something we have never experienced
before. We are just excited to get there,” Webb added.

Hong Kong, China Men’s Seven for Asia Rugby Olympic Qualifier:
Max WOODWARD (Captain); James CHRISTIE; Michael COVERDALE; Max DENMARK; Liam DOHERTY; Liam HERBERT; LEE Ka-to, Cado; Alexander McQUEEN; Alessandro NARDONI; Bryn PHILLIPS; Russell WEBB; YIU Kam-shing, Salom.

Hong Kong, China Men’s Seven Match Schedule (18 Nov.; Times are Hong Kong)
11.55 Hong Kong, China versus Thailand
15.15 Hong Kong, China versus Singapore
18.35 Hong Kong, China versus UAE

Hong Kong, China Women’s Sevens Squad for Asia Rugby Olympic Qualifiers:
Natasha OLSON-THORNE (co-capt.); LI Nim-yan, Melody (co-capt.); AU YEUNG Sin Yi; Chloe CHAN; CHAN Chor Ki, Stephanie; CHONG Ka Yan; Shanna FORREST; FUNG Hoi Ching; HO Wai On, Jessica; NAM Ka Man; POON Hoi Yan, Vivian; TSE Wing Kiu

Hong Kong, China Women’s Sevens Match Schedule (18 Nov.; Times are Hong Kong)
09.25 Hong Kong China versus India
12.45 Hong Kong, China versus Guam
16.30 Hong Kong, China versus China