19th Jul 2022

The last kick of the game (one-point victory) over Korea in the Asia Rugby Championship 2022 secured Hong Kong a hard-earned win but also set in motion another set of challenges for the squad to keep their dream alive of trying to qualify for RWC 2023 in France.


The players, staff, and management were based on the Gold Coast this past week and head to the Sunshine Coast for their important one-off match versus Tonga on Saturday, July 23 to determine the Asia-Pacific RWC 2023 Qualifier. A loss is not the end of the campaign for either side, but the narrative is set up for a potential fairytale journey for this Hong Kong XV national team, but the daunting albeit exciting task at hand is not lost on HKRU Men’s XVs Head Coach Lewis Evans.


ARC Win and Aftermath


“We have had so many challenges to get here, and certain players have not been able to make it because of the current situation with COVID and things out of our control. We had to fly in 35 players and staff on 5 different aircraft from Korea to get here to Australia, which was a mission in itself, and there were lots of changes made at the last minute.”


On the win over Korea, Evans added (on what was his first match as an international head coach), “my heart went in my mouth when we had 79 minutes to go with 14 men against last week. I know it was unfortunate and probably exuberance that got the best of Charles Higson-Smith (which led to his early red card), and he's such a good guy and cares so much about Hong Kong, I just felt for him more than anything….We were happy we managed the situation.


At halftime, it was about being concise and not too emotional. The composure of the guys to give us a chance to win, and considering it was down to one kick at the death, I was relieved, but also excited for this group of players to have two more weeks to stick together and go for this dream of making it to the Rugby World Cup.”


The celebrations post-ARC victory were well-deserved but also fraught with turning their attention to the next step of this journey.


“There was that moment of realisation where we would enjoy the jubilation after we won against Korea, and then at the after-party celebration, the Team Manager (Matt Rodden) and I had to start planning this phase of the trip. To be honest, we put an outline together, and it still had so many moving parts with flights, personnel and who could and could not make it, and to find venues to train at.”


He added, “It just showed that if we are given the opportunity, we can prove our worth and that's the biggest thing.”


Training Camp on Gold Coast


The squad has been based at The Southport School and Evans says it is one of the top schools in the area and the facilities are second to none.


The coach confirmed the players have managed to get some time on the beach and had ice bath recovery days, with some low-key training sessions held.


“We know we can't be undercooked against Tonga as it will be very physical but we can't be fatigued. This is a challenge and this week is managing bumps and bruises. We know there are some niggles and that's part and parcel of the campaign, and it's why we take an extended squad on tour.”


The management and players have held reviews of the match against Korea and reviewed the Tongan games to identify trends and areas they hope to exploit. This week will signal a change in mindset from ‘recovery’ to ‘competition week’ and they will ramp up physically and mentally. They hope, in addition to the training sessions, to organise some opposition as well in preparation for Tonga.


The Tonga Challenge


Evans gave his thoughts on the opposition they will face this week.


“We know with Tonga, we are up against one of the biggest teams in World Rugby, who have a fantastic rugby tradition and history, and they have been to many Rugby World Cups. They have that experience behind them and have top players playing in some of the top teams.


We are not viewing it as being daunting but it's exciting - the chance for Hong Kong to be in the Rugby World Cup. We saw this past weekend with Chile beating the USA to qualify - it just shows that teams are coming through and what is possible.


There were some learnings from Korea, and make no bones about it, it was a win by one point - so we know we need to improve to beat Tonga and we have all accepted that. I think we have had every excuse under the sun not to perform and the irony is we have used those excuses to help galvanise us.”


He added: “As a young coach and a young management team, we have enjoyed dealing with these challenges and trying to find solutions for them but it's another one on a list of what we have had to deal with.”


The Legacy Impact of Reaching a Rugby World Cup


The coaches are very happy with the players and the preparation they have under the circumstances, and Evans has been proud of the leadership group and players who have all been integral in reaching this stage, despite some tough conversations which have been held with players who were unable to be involved, there is a willingness from everyone.


There is also a legacy element to whatever happens on Saturday against Tonga. The coach humbly admitted it's been an amazing experience to be part of this journey and that many others do want to be part of it if Hong Kong does reach the RWC in France, or the repechage tournament in November.


Jo Hull, General Manager at HKRU and who is with the team in Australia, added: “Winning the Asia Rugby Championship against Korea was much more than a win, it was about showing the players, the team, the fans, that even with a hybrid programme we can still be successful but we just have to be open to doing things slightly differently….”


She acknowledges the change of programmes at the HKRU and the recalibration of those means they all had to relook at what the long-term strategy was, and for right now, it's about getting to the 2023 RWC.


Hull added, “for players back in Hong Kong, to see what this team is achieving and knowing that they can get an education, they can work and can be based in Hong Kong and play in our Premiership, or they can be based overseas - they still have an opportunity to play for Hong Kong national teams. And that's what this is about, creating a legacy of what the HKRU programmes look like now.


Evans ended off by saying “and come game-day we can relax, dare I say enjoy it, and hopefully get the result we deserve.”


The matchday squad will be announced later this week and the game against Tonga will be played at the Sunshine Coast Stadium at 5:30 PM local time.[1] 


The winner of this Rugby World Cup 2023 Asia/Pacific Play-Off will join South Africa, Scotland, Ireland and Europe 2 in Pool B, while the loser will head into the Final Qualification tournament in November 2022 which is a round-robin event involving Portugal, Kenya, and the USA.