06 Jun 2019

Hong Kong will start a new rugby chapter when they kick off their title defence of the Asia Rugby Championship against South Korea in Incheon on Saturday (15.00 Hong Kong time). 

After reaching the final four of Rugby World Cup 2019 qualification, Hong Kong will begin its march to 2023 under new head coach Andrew Hall when it plays its first test match since November.

Hall’s first selection underlines the fresh feel, with just nine of last year’s squad for the same tie selected, a number that reflects retirements after the repechage and the omission of most of the sevens squad as they prepare for the Asian series and Olympic qualifier later this year.

Three players are set to earn their first caps in Korea: flanker Callum McCullough, fullback Paul Altier and winger Harry Sayers.  Sayers and McCullough, Hong Kong born players raised in the United Kingdom and New Zealand respectively, returned to the SAR in 2018 to press their international claims.

Altier, meanwhile, is the poster boy of the HKRU’s development schemes having earned representative honours at every age grade level. The fullback, who will return to his studies at University of Bath in the fall, is the current captain of the U20s squad and will lead that team to the Junior World Trophy later this summer.

All three have seized on the opportunities presented in this transitional period, according to Hall, who is keen on rewarding form and players who put their hands up when given chances.

The 25-year old McCullough earns his first cap as, “reward for some really good club form this season and some hard work in his ERP trial,” said Hall, who also noted that McCullough’s height will provide an added benefit in pressurizing the Korean lineout.

Sayers will complete his collection of Hong Kong caps after adding a fifteen a-side appearance to his sevens debut last month at the Singapore Sevens.

“Harry is another guy who really took his opportunity well with the sevens this season. He has some real gas, and adds another weapon and a bit of aggression for us on the outside.”

“I’m delighted for Paul as well,” said Hall.

“He has worked hard and proved himself at every level in our age grade programmes. In our view, he was always the next cab off the rank in terms of being named in the squad by merit, and we have watched him progress for a long while now. It’s hugely pleasing to see a guy like that get a first cap at just 19, 20 years old,” Hall added.

Joining the three newcomers are a few players who have yet to experience Asian international competition - but were tested at the repechage, including forwards Grant Kemp and Craig Lodge, and backs Ben Axten-Burrett, Lewis Warner and Bryn Phillips.

Hall reflected on selecting his first squad and the start of a new cycle, saying, “There are all sorts of emotions, really; excitement, for me and the players, and a bit of nerves as well. We have some big shoes to fill, but I have had great support from the coaching team and the last say on this selection, which is exciting.”

“There is a lot of anticipation - from me, the coaches and the players - to get back to the international game. This is our first opportunity since the repechage; we have put that result behind us mentally and it will be good now in an international to really bury that.

“We have an opportunity to put a marker in the sand,” Hall added.

“We have had success in Korea the last few years, but it’s never easy and we recognize that. That success has come down to having the right approach, players who are ‘on it’, and executing well. Nothing changes now.

“We have to stop their momentum, that is it. If you give them a sniff of the game, they are extremely difficult to contain.”

The early momentum is already in Korea’s favour after they swept Malaysia and had a week’s rest ahead of Hong Kong. Should they defend home turf, Hong Kong will not be able to afford any miscues over the coming month.

“They are coming into it with two games and two wins under their belts. They are comfortable in their combinations and patterns, and will be very happy with that, so we are going to have to disrupt that and ensure they don’t get into their stride.”

Hong Kong Squad v South Korea (Incheon, 8 June): 1. Ben HIGGINS, 2. Alex POST, 3. Grant KEMP, 4. Fin Field, 56. Kyle SULLIVAN, 6. James Cunningham, 7. Callum MCCULLUGH, 8. Kane BOUCAUT, 9. Liam SLATEM ©, 10. Jack NVILLE, 11. Conor HARTLEY, 12. Matt ROSSLEE, 13. Ben AXTEN-BURRETT, 14. Harry SSAYERS, 15. Paul ALTIER, 16. Dayne JANS, 17. Dan BARLOW, 18. Jack PARFITT, 19. Craig LODGE, 20. Cris PIERREPOINT, 21. Bryn PHILLIPS, 22. Lewis WARER, 23, Rob KEITH