06 May 2016

The Hong Kong Rugby Union’s Men’s National XV will open their Asia Rugby Championship campaign tomorrow against Japan at Hong Kong Football Club (kick-off at 16.30).

Perennial champions Japan – despite fielding a new-look squad with 17 players making their debut in Round 1 – returned a familiar result against South Korea, the third team in the ARC 2016, with an 85-0 drubbing in Yokohama last weekend.

That result and the composition of the Japan team surprised Leigh Jones, who returned from a stint in the Japan coaching set-up last November, to resume his duties as Hong Kong coach and Head of Performance Rugby (XVs) at the HKRU.

“They sent a young side, an under 20s team really, to the Pacific Nations Cup and that was the team that they were allegedly bringing to the ARC. However, they have made major changes from that initial squad and have gone to a halfway house, as it were. It looks very much from the first game against Korea that it is 'business as usual', which highlights the depth of talent they have available in Japan.”

That depth of talent will be on display again tomorrow with Japan coach Ryuji Nakatake selecting a largely unchanged side from that which beat Korea. Twenty of last weekend’s 23-man squad have been selected for Hong Kong, including four players from the Sunwolves, Japan’s Super Rugby franchise, in the starting fifteen: hooker Futoshi Mori, lock Kazuhiko Usami, fly-half Ryohei Yamanaka and wing Hajime Yamashita. This despite the Sunwolves playing in Tokyo on the same day.

Accordingly for Jones, Saturday will provide a good indication of the early progress of the HKRU’s new Elite Rugby Programme (ERP), Hong Kong’s first ever fully professional fifteen-a-side rugby programme.

“Japan play a very simple game but they play it so quickly and so effectively it is difficult to combat.

Since returning to Hong Kong in November, we have set out to make major improvements to be able compete at that level. That starts with our set piece. We have to ensure that our set piece functions. It’s no secret that we have talented backs, but we have to win enough ball for them to perform.

“We are always reasonably effective defensively but you can’t defend for 60 or 70 minutes at this level. You have to be able to win your own ball and take the game to the opposition and get them defending more often.”

“The ERP will help, but we are still in the early stages. Realistically it will take us 18 to 24 months before we start to reap the rewards from the Programme. We are creating some good habits, but it is going to take ongoing hard work to ensure we become fully professional in every sense of the word,” Jones said.

Jones looked back to the friendly match versus the Chiefs Development side as the best indication of current progress saying, “The Chiefs were a good test for us and there were some really talented players in that team. I said prior to the match that I think the level of opposition from the Chiefs was going to be higher than anything we were going to meet in the ARC and I still stand by that. They asked us similar questions to those that Japan and Korea will pose in their different ways.

“We defended resolutely for long periods against the Chiefs but we couldn’t win enough quality ball and struggled to breach their defence often enough but in measurement terms it was interesting to see that from the tests in November to the Chiefs match, there were significant gains in the amount of ground we are covering and how quickly we are covering that ground. We need to keep growing in these and other areas so we can compete with these sides.

“That is the challenge for us as a group at the ERP. To keep the enrolment growing with quality players and to keep developing those players to a level of power and fitness where they can sustain that performance level for 80 minutes.”

The majority of Jones’s 23 selected for Japan come from the ERP and the elite rugby sevens programme at the Hong Kong Sports Institute as Hong Kong progresses towards full professionalism, levelling the playing ground somewhat with Japan who boast over 100,000 registered players and a fully professional Top League and second division in their domestic competitions.

Nine of the 12-man squad from the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens have been selected including Yiu Kam Shing and Alex McQueen in the back three, half-backs Jamie Hood, Ben Rimene and Lee Ka To and centre Lee Jones. Flankers James Cunningham and Toby Fenn are also in, along with Ryan Meacheam, who is set to make his Hong Kong debut in fifteens after achieving the same feat in sevens last month. The latter three are ERP players who crossed over to the Sevens campaign earlier this year.

Flanker Nick Hewson will captain Hong Kong once again with Fenn and Daniel Falvey rounding out the back row. Adrian Griffiths and Paul Dwyer make for an experienced second row pairing while the grunt work up front will be handled by Adam Fullgrabe, Jamie Tsang and Jack Parfitt. Jamie Hood and Ben Rimene will dictate Hong Kong’s attack from scrum-half and fly-half respectively while Lee Jones and James Robinson will start at centre, the towering Robinson moving in from his customary position on the wing to pressurise Japan’s mid-field defence. Salom Yiu Kam Shing and Meacheam will be on the wings while Alex McQueen starts at full-back.

Indicating the primacy of securing possession against Japan, Jones has opted for a forwards-heavy 5/3 split in the reserves with front rowers Lachlan Chubb, Leon Wei Hon Sum and Alex Ng Wai Shing back-stopping the front row, while flanker Cunningham and lock Jack Delaforce will add depth. Half-back Lee Ka To, fly-half Niall Rowark and tough-tackling centre Lex Kaleca will also start on the bench.

The squad is under no illusions about the challenges Japan poses but Jones is quietly confident:

“It’s interesting. We were nervous the other night in training, which reflects that we have gone from a scenario of chasing bonus points against Japan to now, where we are putting pressure on the guys and they are putting pressure on themselves to get the results we want and want to expect.

“From my experience in Japan and knowing this group of Japanese players, I believe the game is winnable. The first 30 minutes is going to be crucial in how we set ourselves up for that,” concluded Jones.

Japan will provide the opening challenge for Hong Kong who are away to South Korea next weekend, on bye the following week and then will travel to Japan for round 4. Hong Kong will close its campaign with what will likely be a key tussle with Korea at home at Hong Kong Football Club on 4 June.

Hong Kong Men v Japan (7 May 2016)

1. Adam FULLGRABE, 2. Jamie TSANG, 3. Jack PARFITT, 4. Adrian GRIFFITHS, 5. Paul DWYER, 6. Nicholas HEWSON, 7. Toby FENN, 8. Daniel FALVEY, 9. James HOOD, 10. Ben RIMENE, 11. YIU Kam Shing, 12. Lee JONES, 13. James ROBINSON, 14. Ryan MEACHEAM, 15. Alex McQUEEN. Reserves: 16. Lachlan CHUBB, 17. Leon WEI Hon Sum, 18. Alex NG Wai Shing, 19. James CUNNIGNHAM, 20. Jack DELAFORCE, 21. Lex KALECA, 22. LEE Ka To, 23 Niall ROWARK.