Hong Kong open Asia Rugby Championship with crucial match v Korea

24 April, 2015

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Natixis Hong Kong Football Club winger Charlie Higson-Smith and Societe Generale Valley flanker Toby Fenn are set to make their international debut against South Korea on Saturday in the opening encounter for Hong Kong at the revamped Asia Rugby Championship.The pair will come off the bench as Hong Kong look to start on a winning note in the inaugural Asia Rugby Championship which also includes seven-time Asian Five Nations champions Japan.

Asia's premier annual rugby competition will see the top three - Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea - play a home-and-away round-robin format to decide bragging rights for the region. Previously the elite competition was contested amongst the top five teams, either home or away.

"The new format will be challenging," said Hong Kong head coach Andy Hall who has stated he will have to rely on his larger squad of 34 players if Asia's number two side is to push Japan for supremacy while warding off what is expected to be a tough challenge from the Koreans.

"In previous years we only had to face one-off matches against the likes of Japan and Korea. In those games we found ourselves more fatigued or taking more of a battering than in the other matches in the Top Five so it was a big change," Hall said.

"We will need now to manage that physical toll better with the intensive home-and-away format. This will require more depth and we are going to need our full 34-man squad for this year's series," Hall added.

While the majority of the 23-man squad for the opening encounter, once again captained by No.8 Nick Hewson, has played in the regional competition previously, it will be the first opportunity for Higson-Smith and Fenn.

But they will have to wait for their chance to make a quick impression. Valley openside flanker Fenn will back up Hong Kong Cricket Club's Matt Lamming while regular wingers Salom Yiu Kam-shing and Tom McQueen will keep Higson-Smith waiting to make his mark.

Experienced campaigner Hewson will lead a powerful set of forwards. The front row trio of John Aikman, Lachlan Chubb and James Cooper, and locks Paul Dwyer and Jack Delaforce will have to be on the ball against a feisty Korean tight five. Hewson will have Valley teammate Alex Baddeley on the blindside with Leighton Asia Hong Kong Cricket Club's Lamming on the loose.

The halves combination will pair Abacus Kowloon half-backs Cado Lee Ka-To at scrum-half to join forces with his club-mate Chris McAdam at flyhalf, with last season's debutant Tyler Spitz and Max Woodward shoring up the midfield. The back three will be Yiu, Tom McQueen and elder brother Alex McQueen at fullback.

"Korea have a big, physical front row. Front rowers are big by definition but the Koreans are big even for front rowers and what is unique is that these guys are paramount to their attacking shape as well. They really look to get them involved so we are going to need to snuff that out," said Hall.

Expecting a tough challenge up-front, Hong Kong has packed the bench with forwards, the split being five to three backs. Alex Harris, Leon Wei Hon-sum and Jack Nielsen will provide vital back-up to the front row with Bill Brant and Fenn giving cover for other positions.

Apart from winger Higson-Smith, Jamie Hood and Niall Rowark will be the other two backs and will feel at home on their home turf at Hong Kong Football Club.

While it will be the opening match for Hong Kong, their opponents South Korea arrive riding a wave of confidence after pushing Japan all the way in a 56-30 defeat at home last Saturday.

The Koreans will take a lot of heart from that spirited challenge when they led Japan 17-3 in the first quarter and trailed by only two points at the break. They continued to threaten the upset after being within a converted try of leveling the score late in the second half.

"Korea have some momentum after a solid performance against Japan. The Japanese may not have been at their peak as they were starting their season as well, but you don't stick 30 points on a team inside or around the top 10 in world rugby without turning heads a bit," said Hall.

Their attacking style will provide Hong Kong with a stern test, especially dangerous new fullback Jang Seong-min who grabbed a brace last week.

Hong Kong's ability to handle that pressure will be key to their hopes of at least retaining their runners-up spot in Asia. "We are well aware that they are coming into the match with one game under their belt. Any rust they might have had had will have been knocked out by Japan and this gives them an advantage," Hall said.

"The outcome of this game will be massive. I think both us and Korea know that the games versus Japan are going to be challenging and are targeting each other for two wins. If we can start well and capitalise on that rush of energy, chaos and intensity that are the first 20 minutes of a test match - we will be doing well.

"It is vital that we manage that and are in the game after 20 minutes and preferably in the lead," concluded Hall.

Hong Kong will host South Korea on Saturday (25 April) at Hong Kong Football Club (kick-off at 16.00). Admission is free.

Hong Kong Squad versus South Korea (April 25):
1. John AIKMAN (HK Scottish), 2. Lachlan CHUBB (HK Scottish), 3. James COOPER (HKCC), 4. Paul DWYER (HKCC), 5. Jack DELAFORCE (HKCC), 6. Alex BADDELEY (Valley), 7. Matt LAMMING (HKCC), 8. Nick HEWSON - captain (Valley), 9. Cado LEE Ka To (Abacus Kowloon), 10. Chris MCADAM (Kowloon), 11. Salom YIU Kam Shing (Valley), 12. Tyler SPITZ (Borrelli Walsh USRC Tigers), 13. Max WOODWARD (Valley), 14. Tom McQUEEN (HKCC), 15. Alex McQUEEN (HKCC), 16. Alex HARRIS (Kowloon), 17. Leon WEI Hon Sum (Valley), 18. Jack NIELSEN (HKCC), 19. Bill BRANT (HKCC), 20. Toby FENN* (Valley), 21. Jamie HOOD (HKFC), 22. Charlie HIGSON-SMITH* (HKFC), 23. Niall ROWARK (HKFC).
* Hong Kong debut

This game will also be shown live on NOW TV Channel 634.
Hong Kong v Korea, 25 April at HKFC:https://www.facebook.com/events/1429194217376369/
Hong Kong v Japan, 23 May at Aberdeen Stadium:https://www.facebook.com/events/1564920033797676/