30 Aug 2019

The Hong Kong Rugby Union senior sevens squads will kick off a pivotal Asia Rugby Sevens Series tomorrow in Incheon, South Korea.  The opening tournament on the Asian circuit marks the start of the final stretch run to November’s regional qualifiers for the 2020 Olympics in Japan. The winners of the November qualifiers will advance as Asia one to next year’s Games, joining hosts Japan’s men’s and women’s teams in Tokyo.

This season’s Series sees three tournaments in Incheon (31 Aug-1 Sep); Huizhou, China (14-15 Sep); and Colombo, Sri Lanka (28-29 Sep); leading into the Olympic qualifiers, back in Incheon for the men and in Guangzhou for the women this November.

The men enter the season as the reigning Asian Games champions and coach Paul John has opted for a seasoned group to start the campaign on a hoped for positive note. Hong Kong face a testing pool as the top seeds in Pool B alongside The Philippines, last season’s third overall finisher, hosts South Korea (fourth in 2018) and Chinese Taipei.  Pool A is headed by defending series champions Japan, Sri Lanka, China and the United Arab Emirates.

The opening series squad features seven of the Asian Games gold medallists including Max Woodward, Michael Coverdale, Lee Jones, Cado Lee Ka-to, Jamie Hood, Yiu Kam-shing and Hugo Stiles, who marks his first sevens action after a lengthy fight back from injury. A cadre of some of Hong Kong’s most experienced sevens players in Toby Fenn, Kane Boucaut, Russell Webb and Jack Neville, (each of whom played in Hong Kong’s last Series outing in Singapore last April) and Tom McQueen are also named in the squad.

Hong Kong’s women’s sevens stars are nurturing medal ambitions of their own, with Iain Monaghan entering his second season in charge and completing his first off-season programme with the team, as they look to continue an upward trend in results.

“We started this road back in January last year when I arrived, and we still have our eyes set on our twin goals of qualifying for the Games and becoming the fastest team in Asia.

“We have now been able to put a lot of work behind achieving those goals, in understanding why we want to achieve them and what it takes to do so. We have had a good 12-week off-season programme that focused on some of the areas identified last season and that has helped improve the players physically and rugby-wise. Now, the Series presents for the coaches an opportunity for us to benchmark that work in attack and defence over the summer.

“For the girls, this is the fun part, playing the games, after all their hard work. The girls are excited but they know there are a lot of disappointed players back home and that they have an opportunity this weekend that is theirs to take.”

The squad will welcome the return of Natasha Olson-Thorne from an injury that sidelined one of Hong Kong’s most important players for the World Rugby Sevens Series qualifiers last season.

“She is in good form and we are pushing her into playing some different positions around the field, which shows her capabilities and also I think is challenging her in a really positive way. She is a unique athlete, a seasoned campaigner, and her leadership and experience is really important for us. She brings both calm and a real competitive edge to our performance.”

The squad has also benefited from a timely influx of National Age Grade talent last season with Amy Pyle, Maelle Picut, Sarah Lucas and Jess Eden all breaking through at senior level. This weekend presents an opportunity for the latest new find in Discovery Bay Pirates’ Florence Symonds.

The 17-year old offers an advanced physicality and maturity for her age and Monaghan and the coaching team spent a lot of time with her and a group of her National Age Grade team-mates this off-season.

“She had a good preseason winning the U20s Asian championship title with the girls sevens team, and is someone we have had our eye on and who has been training with us for a while. She is a really talented young lady and mad keen to play sevens. After evaluating her we decided she needed to be challenged at a higher level, and the Asian Series is the right place to see how she is coming along.

We have spent a lot of time with her, in our strength and conditioning and player development team ahead of this. We didn’t want to push her into something she wasn’t ready for, but as is typical for female athletes, she is quite advanced both physically and mentally for her age,” said Monaghan.

Olson-Thorne and Symonds represent the positive polarity in the squad, which is becoming an equal blend of experience and fresh legs. Returning captain Melody Li Nim-yan, Sham Wai-sum, Nam Ka-Man, BB Lee Tsz-ting, Olson-Thorne and wrecking ball winger Chong Ka-yan all cast give the side a veteran cast, while emerging players from the past few seasons in Eden, Pyle, Stephanie Chan Chor-Ki, Au Yeung, Sin-yi, Poon Hoi-yan and Symonds round out the newcomers.

Given that blend in the squad, consistency is a key for Monaghan, “We talk about it a lot. Consistency is essential. You need it to get to the top and stay there, and if you are not at the top, you need it to be able to knock off the teams between you and that peak, so that consistent performance is something we are always calling for.”

With rivals Japan already safely ensconced as hosts next year in Tokyo, the road to the Olympics is as wide open as it has ever been for both Hong Kong’s men’s and women’s sevens.  They will be keen to ensure the first foot they set on that path is a solid stride this weekend.

Hong Kong Women’s Sevens Squad (South Korea, Sept 2019): Melody Li Nim-yan (Captain), Natasha Olson-Thorne, Sham Wai-sum, Florence Symonds*, Au Yeung, Sin-yi; Lee Tsz-Ting; Poon Hoi-yan; Nam Ka-man, Chong Ka-yan, Stephanie Chan Chor-ki, Jessica Eden, Amy Pyle.

*First senior sevens cap

Hong Kong Men’s Sevens Squad (South Korea, Sept 2019): Max Woodward (Captain); Michael Coverdale, Lee Jones, Toby Fenn, Kane Boucaut, Cado Lee Ka-to, Hugo Stiles, Russell Webb, Jack Neville, Jamie Hood, Yiu Kam-shing, Tom McQueen.