18 Jan 2021

In light of the pressing financial and logistical implications arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, the Hong Kong Rugby Union (HKRU) will transition its full-time men’s fifteen-a-side representative programme to a traditional semi-professional model and will close the Elite Rugby Programme (ERP) after the expiry of current player and staff contracts on 30 June 2021.


The move effectively returns the Union to the historical, semi-professional, operating model employed for most of its 68-year history, where elite players eligible for Hong Kong selection have their efforts subvented by stipend payments in competitive periods.


Given the unprecedented and protracted impact of the pandemic on the rugby calendar, (including successive postponements of the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens and uncertainties around the commercial impact of the move to Kai Tak Stadium, the end of Global Rapid Rugby, a 10-month delay in the qualification process for Rugby World Cup 2023 and the delayed inception of the Asia Pacific Rugby Championship until at least 2023) - and the expiration of the local Employment Support Scheme, the costs of the programme, which employs 30 athletes on a full-time basis, are no longer sustainable for the HKRU.


“Many Unions around the world are having to make, or have already made, similar decisions,” said Mr Patrick Donovan, Chairman of the HKRU. 


“The global game is facing a period of uncertainty as we try to assess the lasting impact of the pandemic on the sport. The continuing financial challenge imposed by Covid on our hosting of the Hong Kong Sevens, which accounts for 95% of our income, has been further exacerbated by the end of Global Rapid Rugby and the postponement of the Rugby World Cup Qualifier from November 2021 to August 2022.

  “These exceptional circumstances necessitated a change to our current model with the objective of ensuring our long-term financial sustainability. Having made this difficult decision, it was imperative to give the affected players and staff as much notice as possible so we can work with them to support the transition to other opportunities,” added Mr Donovan.


The HKRU is committed to fulfilling its current contractual agreement with affected players and staff, including providing full health insurance and retirement fund contributions, and will now begin providing extensive and individualised support for them in this transition.  


The men’s and women’s elite sevens programmes, supported by funding from the Hong Kong Sports Institute, are unaffected, as is the women’s national XVs programme.


First established in 2016 with the objective of strengthening the standard of domestic rugby and retaining up and coming local talent, the ERP’s objectives have largely been met.

The considerable costs of continuing the programme in the face of the financial pressures besetting world sport have necessitated this difficult decision in the interests of safeguarding the HKRU’s financial stability. Future funding models on a semi-professional basis are currently under review by the HKRU.


Despite a dearth of competitive opportunities for ERP players since March 2020, and with the support of the Government Employment Subside Scheme, the HKRU retained programme staff for the past year, and will begin the transition to a semi-professional basis at end June, when the current contracts expire. Players currently enrolled in the ERP will not have their contracts extended after this date.


Player welfare was a core tenet of the ERP, and will continue to be so, with the HKRU set to provide athletes with individualised and professional career support effective immediately to help them manage the transition to a semi-professional basis. 


The Union has engaged recruitment firm Leathwaite to offer career-planning consultancy, including curriculum vitae development, interview training, and networking sessions with local employers in the transition period.


“This decision has not been taken lightly, and player welfare has been at the heart of what has been a very difficult and lengthy discussion process over the future of the ERP. This is something we remain fully committed to,” added Mr Donovan.


The HKRU will continue to field both men’s and women’s representative teams and maintains its competitive aspirations of being the highest ranked Union in Asia behind Japan, and qualifying for future Rugby World Cups.


After a lengthy hiatus, this process will resume with Hong Kong’s title defence bid in the Asia Rugby Championship title when that competition eventually resumes, which is expected to be in May.


The move follows on from previous restructuring of the Union’s administrative staff in April 2020, which saw redundancies and salary reductions implemented across all functions as the HKRU seeks to balance costs in what continues to be an uncertain operating environment.