Hong Kong men’s sevens squad set for 2016 debut at Borneo Sevens
The Hong Kong Rugby Union (HKRU) has named its first men's sevens squad of 2016 for this weekend's Borneo Sevens (19-20 March). Borneo will mark the only warm-up competition for the men ahead of the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens (8-10 April).
Coach Gareth Baber commented on the upcoming challenges for the squad, which will take part in the 12-team World Rugby Sevens Series qualifier as part of the Hong Kong Sevens with a chance at promotion to the international circuit. Hong Kong was drawn alongside Zimbabwe, losing finalists in last year's qualifier, Germany and debutants the Cayman Islands for the Qualifier.
"The quality of the teams in the Qualifier has risen yet again," said Baber. "Spain, Tonga, Japan, Germany, Papua New Guinea and Zimbabwe are all very strong. There are five or six teams in the mix next month and a number of them have much more experience on the international series than us, either this season or in the recent past," Baber added.
Japan, who are a year removed from a full-time spot on the international series, leads all of the Qualifier teams with four appearances in this year's circuit, including reaching the Plate final in Las Vegas last month.Japan has also been invited to play in Singapore following the Hong Kong Sevens.Brazil and Zimbabwe have both played in one tournament already this season, while Spain was previously one of the core teams participating across all events on the World Series.
The experience gained by these sides from their extensive international competition, combined with the cancellation of the cross-continental tournament which was introduced last year in Borneo - when Hong Kong was able to hit out against fellow Qualifier teams Tonga and Papua New Guinea - makes Hong Kong's bid for promotion that much harder in 2016.
In the absence of the cross-continental competition, Hong Kong have opted to play in the Borneo Sevens, an invitational club tournament that will draw teams from New Zealand, Australia and Fiji among others.
The team has been in training at the Hong Kong Sports Institute since the end of last year's Asian Series and Olympic qualifiers in November, but the players' workload has had to be carefully managed over the course of the league season. With the league now concluded, Baber can amp up the workload for April.Following this weekend's tournament, the squad will begin an intensive three-week training camp at the HKSI to prepare for their first fully international hit-out of the season in the Hong Kong Stadium.
"The timing is tight," Baber admitted. "We're desperate to play some quality opposition and I'm hoping that Borneo will provide that. Last year at the cross-continental tournament, which was played alongside the Borneo 7s, we saw the club competition and it's a good tournament with strong teams.
"Borneo should provide us with the chance to play teams with different styles. The Fijians play differently to the Kiwi and Aussie teams, et cetera, and that experience will be very helpful when we come up against similar circumstances in the Qualifier."
"Our objectives are to squeeze as much out of the tournament as we can, and re-immerse ourselves into a high-intensity environment, particularly that physical element of tournament play, with three hard matches on day one and the need to do it all again on day two. We'll look to keep things relatively simple with an eye on ensuring consistency in our performances across every match," said Baber.
Fortunately Baber has been able to call upon a strong squad with several veteran players for Borneo.Squad veterans like Rowan Varty, Alex McQueen, Salom Yiu Kam Shing and Jamie Hood all fit and available.
The recent wave of emerging performance players is also featured, with Jack Capon and Michael Coverdale selected alongside young captain Max Woodard. Calvin Hunter and Chris Maize are on pace with their recovery from minor injuries but were not included for Borneo.
"There's some good continuity in the squad with several veterans plus some of the emerging players like Jack and Michael, who are all another year on in their development," Baber noted.
Baber will also have Lee Jones back in action this weekend after the aggressive New Zealander was passed fit after an injury dating back to last year's Hong Kong Sevens. "It's great to have Lee back. We've worked a lot with him at the HKSI to get his injury issues sorted out and he has put in a massive amount of time and effort into his recovery. I'm pleased that he will get another opportunity this weekend."
The squad will be without try-scoring threat Tom McQueen and grafting forward Mark Wright, both of whom are out of the Hong Kong Sevens campaign with shoulder injuries, but are progressing in their return to fitness with an eye on the final Olympic qualifier in June.
Baber also selected two promising players known more for their fifteen-aside prowess in Kowloon flanker James Cunningham and Valley flanker Toby Fenn: "James and Toby have been training with us for the past five weeks. We selected them both with a view to having a good look at how they perform in our environment and to see how they can develop further.
"While they're definitely in the frame for the Qualifier, their selection is part of our longer-term development goal to include players from the fifteens environment. With only 21 senior players in the HKSI programme, we need to develop depth in Hong Kong wherever it is. We've already seen the results of this in terms of the number of young players we've unearthed in the past two seasons and now we're starting to look more and more at some of Hong Kong's established fifteens players.
"We're taking advantage of the growing quality in the Hong Kong domestic league. Bringing players like James and Toby into the squad will help push the athletes in the HKSI programme that much more, as we strive to maintain a high-intensity environment where the battle for places is highly competitive," said Baber.
Both are known for their no-nonsense play according to Baber: "James is a big man. He's a tall back row forward and his size gives us some parity against our opponents. He's good in the air, which is hugely important in Sevens to help win ball from re-starts. Previously we were using one of our backs, Alex McQueen, to win the ball at the re-start, but James will give us more options.
"Toby also brings that back row forward doggedness to the squad. He's not quite as big as James, but defensively he's very strong. He's a good determined defender and tackler who also carries the ball very well. Both players will enhance our physicality this weekend and that physical attitude is something we are looking to emphasise across the squad a bit more."
The two players have been immersed in the environment to date but Baber understands that there is a natural learning curve as they make their transition from fifteens to sevens: "They've integrated into our set-up very well so far. They're intelligent players. Of course it's a challenge for them on the paddock and in the analysis room to adapt to our structures and the unique demands of the sevens game, but they're adapting well.
"Everyone has to start somewhere and I'm pleased with their progress. They've shown some errors that they probably wouldn't in the fifteens environment, but that's all part of the process and I'm sure that this weekend will be beneficial for their continued development," Baber added.
Hong Kong National Men's Sevens Squad - Borneo Sevens (19-20 March 2016)
Max WOODWARD (captain); Rowan VARTY; Jamie HOOD; Salom YIU Kam Shing; Ben RIMENE; Lee JONES; Cado LEE Ka To; Alex MCQUEEN; Jack CAPON; Michael COVERDALE; James CUNNINGHAM*, Toby FENN*
* Hong Kong Sevens squad debuts