HKRU rallies Rugby community support behind teams as they challenge for a spot in Rio

01 Nov 2015

The Hong Kong Rugby Union today announced the final men’s and women’s sevens teams to represent Hong Kong, China at the Asia Rugby Sevens Qualifier on 7-8 November at the Hong Kong Stadium.

Today’s squad announcement cum pep rally was held at the USRC Borrelli Walsh Tigersfest mini rugby festival with over 3,500 young players and thousands of more parents, officials and supporters in attendance.

The players named today will carry Hong Kong’s flag in the Qualifier when Asia’s sole men’s and women’s automatic berth at the 2016 Rio Summer Games will be decided. The 2016 Games will mark the debut of Rugby Sevens as an Olympic competition sport.

The men’s champion will advance automatically to Rio while the women’s teams will compete in a two-tournament series in Hong Kong and Japan later in November. Asia will also have spots for the other high-placing men’s and women’s teams from the Qualifier in a final international repechage tournament in June 2016.

With some lingering fitness concerns, Hong Kong Sevens coach Gareth Baber has kept all options open, selecting an expanded squad of 13 players for the 12 final spaces he needs to fill by Friday, 6 November.

With a cross-section of fresh legs and old heads in Baber’s penultimate squad, Hong Kong will be among the leading contenders to reach the final. The squad features 11 of the 12 players that won the Silver medal at the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea. They will be intent on going one better at home in front of what is expected to be strong local support.

Most of the familiar faces are present, including a qualified quartet of senior statesman in former captains Rowan Varty and Mark Wright and veterans Keith Robertson and Tsang Hing Hung.

This experienced core is further bolstered by the vision and versatility of another former captain in Jamie Hood and Alex McQueen, whose quietly influential performances are always a crucial indicator of Hong Kong’s fortunes on the day. The strike force features Hong Kong’s two finest finishers in Salom Yiu Kam Shing and Tom McQueen, whose recent recovery from injury proves that timing is everything on the wing.

Cado Lee Ka To will be called upon to resume his usual role in providing steady service as the lynchpin between the forwards and backs.

The next generation features prominently in the final squad as Hong Kong’s young guns are locked and loaded for the coming weekend. Joining the tireless Max Woodward – who assumed the captaincy at the outset of the season and has led by example every minute since – Michael Coverdale, Jack Capon and Chris Maize all staked their claim to the coveted spots with coolly consistent performances this season.

Hong Kong have drawn a beneficial group, topping Pool B ahead of Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Philippines and Iran who are making their 2015 debut in a senior Asia Rugby event next weekend. With a blend of size and speed, fourth-ranked Sri Lanka will be Hong Kong’s most difficult hurdle in the group stage.

With a playing base 20 times the size of Hong Kong’s, supported by a nationwide professional league structure, Japan will be the top contenders to reach the final from Pool A. Japan are grouped with South Korea (third-placed finishers on the series), China (fifth in Asia this season), Singapore and Chinese Taipei.

Japan are the current Asian champions after sweeping all three events on this year’s sevens series. Hong Kong was the men’s champion in 2014 and finished second in the log this season.

Japan’s women also finished top of the table in the women’s series, with China in second and Hong Kong finishing tied second but overall third based on differentials.

With their fifteen-aside brethren making waves at the Rugby World Cup and Tokyo hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics, Japan’s Sevens stars will likely be feeling the weight of expectation next weekend.

Hong Kong Women’s Sevens coach Anna Richards also tipped an experienced side under the captaincy of Christy Cheng Ka Chi after pre-season captain Royce Chan Leong Sze failed to recover from injury.

With seven Hong Kong Women’s Sevens appearances under her belt, Cheng has proven a more than capable captain, leading the squad to its first Asian Sevens cup win at the opening event of the Series in Qingdao, China.

Richards was pleased with the build-up and the final squad selected. “We were pretty much able to select from our first choice squad with the exception of Royce who was coming off a long injury lay-off. Ultimately she was impacted when we changed the forwards-backs split. We have gone with seven backs, which meant that we couldn’t carry a specialist hooker. Royce is obviously disappointed but we know her leadership abilities and that she and all of the girls in the squad will be backing the team fully.

“We are fortunate to have Christy, who has stepped into the captaincy seamlessly. She’s been vice captain for several years and has captained the Hong Kong fifteen so she is a great leader and has performed extremely well on the series,” said Richards.

Other influential veterans tipped include vice-captain Natasha Olson-Thorne who has battled her way through injuries this season but continues to make her mark felt with fierce midfield running and clinical finishing. She was the second leading scorer for Hong Kong over the season with six tries from two tournaments.

“Natasha is doing well after being injured in Qingdao. That injury set her back a bit for the finale in Sri Lanka, but since then she has worked hard to get her fitness levels back and will be an important part of what we need to do next weekend.”

Candy Cheng Tsz Ting, Amelie Seure and Lindsay Varty are also experienced campaigners along with Aggie Poon Pak Yan, who has been the superstar of the Asian Series this year, finishing as top scorer with 17 tries and 121 points from two tournaments. Poon will need to maintain her form next weekend with the team relying on her finishing abilities.

Richards has also shown faith in 22-year old Chong Ka Yan, who only made her senior squad debut in September.

“Ka Yan gives us more speed in the backline which is always useful. It’s going to be a tough tournament and we can’t expect players like Aggie Poon to play every minute of every game if we want to be successful. It will be great to be able to call upon Ka Yan. She can add some real firepower for us off the bench,” Richards said.

With some dropouts in the women’s competition, the complexion of the tournament has changed. All of the six participating women’s teams will be in a single pool with the top two teams emerging from the round-robin pool stage advancing to the final.

“It’s not ideal to have teams dropping out late, and it’s a real shame for the girls in those teams. Now with the single pool competition, it makes for a very tough tournament to come out on top,” Richards added.

But Hong Kong is well prepared according to Richards: “We have been training well and we have the self-belief that we can win at this level. There are always more things you want to work on, but the girls are in a good place and with strong support from the local crowd I think we can get through.”

Richards is stressing consistency to her charges. “We have to replicate what we did in Qingdao where we minimised our errors and played consistently. If we can do those things and hold onto the ball we know we can put points on the board. But we have to make sure our approach is correct.

“The players have been working so hard and they have been playing together for a few years now and that builds real strength within the side. Our performance on the Series has given them the belief that they can win and that was a huge hurdle for us in the past. We didn’t have that belief a year and a half ago.

“That self-belief combined with what we hope will be great support from the hometown fans will be invaluable. The girls are mentally stronger and are in a good place heading into the qualifier,” Richards concluded.

Hong Kong Women’s Sevens Squad for ARSQ:

Christy CHENG KA CHI ©, Amelie SEURE, CHENG Tsz Ting, CHONG Ka Yan, KWONG Sau Yan, LAI Pou Fan, Lindsay VARTY, Natasha OLSON-THORNE (vice captain), NAM Ka Man, POON Pak Yan, SHAM Wai Sum, Stephanie CUVELIER.

Hong Kong Men’s Sevens Squad for ARSQ (13-man squad):

Max WOODWARD ©; Rowan VARTY; Salom YIU Kam Shing; LEE Ka To, Cado; TSANG Hing Hung, Jamie HOOD; Alex McQUEEN; Tom McQUEEN; Keith ROBERTSON; Mark WRIGHT; Jack CAPON; Chris MAIZE; Michael COVERDALE.