The Hong Kong Rugby Union (HKRU) has announced its squad to play in the Asia Rugby U19s Championship starting this weekend in Singapore.
Hong Kong will be playing for a third consecutive Asian title and qualification for the World Rugby U20 Trophy next year in Zimbabwe. Hong Kong has qualified for the last two U20 Trophy tournaments, (the first hosted in Hong Kong in 2014 and last year in Portugal), finishing eighth on both occasions.
The round-robin Asian championship features Sri Lanka, Chinese Taipei and hosts Singapore, promoted from Division I to replace last year’s bottom-ranked side South Korea. As defending champions, Hong Kong are seeded number one in the tournament.
The 25-man squad features 14 forwards and 11 backs, and includes 14 veterans of either last year’s Asian qualifier in Sri Lanka or the World Rugby U20 Trophy in Portugal in April 2015.
Despite their young ages, players like Hugo Stiles, Liam Owens, Hugo Chui Ho Ching, John Markley, Matt Worley, Ron Siew and Ben Schats are seasoned veterans at this level. They will be called upon to provide leadership in Singapore after lynchpins like Calvin Hunter, Erick Kwok Pak Nga, Richie Lewis and Raef Morrison graduated from U19s level since the Junior Trophy in Lisbon.
“That was a great group of players and they all went on to do well, which shows that our processes are working,” said coach Peter Drewett, who previously coached England U21s.
“The lovely thing about age grade rugby is that we get to focus as much on player development as on results. Our primary role is to help these players unlock their potential and advance to Premiership rugby and ultimately into the national team, and that seems to be working.
“Now this group will have their chance to impress and there are some good players with exciting potential coming through,” Drewett added.
In a sign of the progress being made domestically, the HKRU is working with these players on a near year-round basis.
“Our preparations have been good. As part of our Age Grade programme, we have been working with this group in training for this tournament since summer,” Drewett said.
“Since the start of the domestic season, many of the squad have been playing at Premiership and Premiership A level, so we have had to be mindful of their club training and playing commitments but I think that shows that we are meeting some of our primary objectives.”
Among the players building their Premiership pedigree are those with Hong Kong Scottish and Hong Kong Football Club, two clubs who are embracing the youth movement this season. Alessandro Nardoni, Mark Coebergh and Austin Robertshaw all played for Scottish last Saturday against Valley, while Football Club’s Pierce Mackinlay-West and Callum McFeat-Smith played against USRC Tigers, who fielded Ron Siew. HKCC’s Thomas Gibb was on the bench for the match versus Kowloon, which was postponed.
Prop Ken Encarnacion and flanker Tang Cheuk Hang are also advancing their claims after being selected to attend the Chiefs’ summer development camp earlier this year. Encarnacion is learning from the masters at Hong Kong Scottish - playing behind four Hong Kong front rowers in John Aikman, Jack Parfitt, Lachlan Chubb and Jamie Pincott, while Tang is advancing through the ranks at Kowloon.
In addition to the Premiership talent, four of the side’s most experienced players are attending university or playing overseas but will join the team shortly before the start of the tournament: Liam Owens (Uni. of Edinburgh), Hugo Stiles (Uni. of Bath) and James Christie (Uni. of Northumbria). Matt Worley, who is on trial with French top league team Racing 92, will also join the squad in Singapore.
Drewett knows that group will be relied upon to help the lesser experienced players but stressed that there will be opportunities for all in Singapore: “With three matches in six days, it is about all 25 players sharing the load. For us to do well everyone has to perform and that is how we are approaching it.”
While Hong Kong walked the competition last year, the coaches and players understand that they cannot mistake past results for present conditions.
“The coaches and the players themselves have done a great job in realizing that the past is irrelevant. Teams can change dramatically at this level from one year to the next. Because of this our goal is to focus purely on our own processes and structures,” Drewett added.
“But rugby is about winning things and it is important for us to reach the World Rugby U20 Trophy so we make no bones about that being our goal. Reaching competitions like the U20 Trophy is essential. It is one of the few chances that players at this level can understand what it is like to be in a truly competitive international environment.”
Part of winning well for Drewett will be having all of the players contributing and for Hong Kong to achieve some of their desired structure in the results.
“We’re looking to play with width and pace in attack and to be able to defend with width. Ultimately, we want to create an environment where the players play without fear.
“We need to get the basics right and have to win primary possession of course, but we also want to ensure that players have the opportunity to develop themselves irrespective of their jersey numbers. We’re all looking forward to it. We know we have a big job to do, but it is the kind of expectation and pressure that we want to be involved in,” Drewett concluded.
Hong Kong Squad, Asia Rugby U19s Championship
Singapore, Dec 13 – 19, 2015
CHEUNG Ho Yin (Kowloon), James CHRISTIE* (Uni. of Northumbria), Hugo CHUI, Ho Ching* (HKFC), Mark COEBERGH (HK Scottish), Michael EARLEY* (HKS), Ken ENCARNACION* (HKS), Thomas GIBB* (HKCC), Oisin HARBITZ (Valley), Jonathan HEALY (HKS), Alexander HORNE (HKFC), MAK Kwai Chung (Tin Shui Wai), John MARKLEY* (Valley), Pierce MACKINLAY-WEST (HKFC), Alessandro NARDONI* (HKS), Liam OWENS* (Valley / Uni. of Edinburgh), Cris PIERREPONT (HKFC), Austin ROBERTSHAW (HKS), Ben SCHATS* (USRC Tigers), Ron SIEW* (USRC Tigers), Callum McFEAT-SMITH* (HKFC), Hugo STILES* (Uni. of Bath / Valley), TANG Cheuk Hang* (Kowloon), Aidan TRENT (USRC Tigers), WONG Chun Hei (Tai Po Dragons), Matthew WORLEY* (Racing 92).
*Played World Rugby Junior Trophy (April 2014) or 2014 Asia Rugby U19s Qualifier
Hong Kong U19s Schedule:
Sunday, 13 December:Hong Kong v Chinese Taipei (14.30)
Wednesday, 16 December:Hong Kong v Sri Lanka (14.30)
Saturday, 19 December:Hong Kong v Singapore (16.30)
All matches will be played at Singapore’s Yio Chu Kang rugby ground.