28th Aug 2019

With the World Cup looming large on the global sports horizon, Hong Kong’s rugby community is busy preparing for a pulsating competition of its own this season, as more than 89 teams, from 26 clubs contest 710 games across 26 men’s and women’s leagues from youth to senior levels.

Year on year growth in participation has been carefully nurtured by some transformational programmes and campaigns in recent seasons, including the advent of the professional sevens and fifteen a side programmes; the women’s national team qualifying for Hong Kong’s first Rugby World Cup; the men’s team fast approaching the same feat, and the launch of the FWD South China Tigers, the Greater Bay Area’s first professional team.

All of these elements are contributing to a growing recognition of Hong Kong’s unique rugby culture worldwide, drawing more Hong Kong eligible players to their home soil, as well as players from around the world looking to forward their professional rugby careers and raising the local game’s competitive standard. 

A similarly improving standard at age grade levels across Hong Kong Rugby is beginning to produce a steady stream of players from the national programme and school and youth clubs across the city.

To further catalyse this growth across all fronts, the HKRU’s strategic vision for the coming five year period revolves around four key pillars: “Engage, Retain, Perform, Sustain”. 

In the first visible alignment behind this new vision, the HKRU and domestic clubs engaged in a comprehensive process over the close season to produce a re-structured league for the coming men’s season. 

The changes further join league rugby with the HKRU’s strategic plan and its goals in the international arena, said Dai Rees, Chief Rugby Operations Officer at the HKRU.

“We knew that we could not achieve this alignment on our own, and that there was a wider and really significant role for the clubs to play, particularly the Premiership clubs, in what is the first major alignment we have done under the new strategic plan,” Rees said.

The South China Tigers franchise and Global Rapid Rugby is another key cog in the plan to strengthen Hong Kong rugby, providing a vital proving ground for the SAR’s finest and drawing top flight payers into the domestic competition from around the world.
Following the announcement of an expanded home and away Global Rapid Rugby season for 2020, an already challenging proposition on the pitch is set to grow even tougher. To help prepare for the campaign, a new look Premiership will kick off on Saturday, 7 September, with 17 weeks of domestic top league action (15 league competition weekends and a two week, four-team grand championship knock-out), before coming to a close in early March. 

The 2019 Premiership sees Hong Kong’s six elite clubs tasked with a ten-week, two-round chase for a spot in the top four at season end, followed by two weeks of knockout rugby to decide the grand championship. 

The Premiership will be preceded by an innovative new competition, a five-week Challenge Cup. The Challenge Trophy not only provides the clubs with an effective warm-up for their Premiership hunt, it offers an opportunity to assess their organizational depth beyond the ranks of players they would normally field were Premiership places on the line.

To facilitate the ability of the clubs to trial emerging players, the HKRU has loosened age requirements for Challenge Trophy matches, establishing a pathway for younger players to earn playing time alongside Hong Kong’s top Premiership stars.
Each club will be given a dispensation to play a maximum of 5 players aged 25 and under in each of their 23-man squads for Challenge Trophy fixtures.

The clubs have also been given until after the Challenge Trophy to submit their final 32-man squads for the Premiership, giving the youngsters every incentive and opportunity to impress as they push for places in the final teams.

It is hoped that the younger players who don’t make their final Premiership squads will be featured at Premiership A level, as the HKRU looks to strengthen that competition to stem any gaps in standard between Hong Kong’s elite and minor premiership competitions. 

There are also plans to increase opportunities at intake level with an intended U19s Premiership next season.
Rees laid clear the need for these steps, demystifying some of the realities behind the national team’s tradition of punching above their weight along the way.

He notes that in 2018, there were just 306 registered players at U19s level, 25% of whom were studying overseas, further narrowing the selection pool locally. 

Those numbers fall far short of requirements according to Rees, who notes that HKRU rugby operations department estimates call for 100 players to come through domestic channels into senior rugby each season.

Rees also cited the fact that while 70 players from Hong Kong’s sides at the past five World Rugby U20 Trophy tournaments have gone on to play Premiership level - among the most promising developments in local rugby in recent years - those numbers still lag beyond the ideal intake figures, another factor behind the launch of the Challenge Trophy.

he paucity of numbers has been somewhat papered over by the quick ascent and undeniable talent of several of Hong Kong’s top U20 graduates, including Max Denmark, Hugo Stiles, Paul Altier and Alex Post, each of whom has featured for Hong Kong in recent seasons.

But more must be done says Rees, who points to World Rugby’s global loss rate in player retention at this age level, which hovers around 50%.

“Everyone understands the need to get these players more opportunities, and the Challenge Trophy gives clubs the flexibility to play their young, untested players alongside their veterans without the pressure of losing a semi final or grand championship spot were Premiership results on the line,” Rees said.

The Challenge Trophy will form an effective prelude for the sides ahead of what is another eagerly anticipated Premiership competition, given the tense drama of last season when the hunt for the league title went down to the wire.
More details of the Men’s Premiership competition, including the announcement of the Premiership wider squads will be announced at the Saxo Capital Markets Premiership sponsorship announcement in early September.