HK's Elite Rugby Programme: Meet the bankers turned rugby professionals

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Hong Kong bankers and other white-collar professionals have begun ditching their office suits for rugby kits – all with the aim of reaching the Rugby World Cup in 2019. Lindsay Varty meets the players and coaches of the Elite Rugby Programme spearheading the city’s rugby dream

With the Hong Kong Sevens tournament imminent, the city is gearing up for the biggest sporting event of the year. Yet while we all know what it takes to be the perfect Hong Kong Sevens fan – think comical costume, plenty of beer, hot wings – it takes something else entirely to make it on the pitch.

Since July last year, 23 men aged from 20 to 31 have been plucked from their professions to form Hong Kong’s very first Elite Rugby Programme (ERP), an initiative that aims to develop a fifteen-a-side rugby union team capable of qualifying for the next Rugby World Cup, in Japan in 2019.

Rugby sevens has been a professional sport in Hong Kong for almost three years, but this is the first time that the more widely known and played 15-a-side game has gone pro in the SAR. After the huge success and worldwide support garnered by the Japanese team during the 2015 Rugby World Cup – following their stunning upset victory over two world champions South Africa – Asian rugby has been given new hope and greater recognition. Now, our very own Hong Kong heroes hope to deliver the same sort of surprise at the next World Cup. Getting there, however, will take a lot of hard work and determination, and the kind of results that have so far eluded the national team.

“It’s a brave step for the [Hong Kong Rugby] Union, but it really demonstrates the progressive mindset of rugby in Hong Kong,” says head coach of the ERP, Dr Leigh Jones. A highly respected figure, Hong Kong is lucky to have Jones, who recently returned to the city from Japan, where he trained the national team alongside world-renowned figure Eddie Jones, the current head of the England setup and a man who’s been on the coaching staff of Tri Nations and World Cup winning teams. While Dr Jones still believes the Hong Kong team has a long way to go to match the standard set by Japan – who have been professional for more than 12 years and continue to set the benchmark in Asia – he believes his time with The Brave Blossoms has provided a vital learning experience and helped him to refine his coaching abilities. “Prior to Japan I had a broad-brush approach [to coaching]… but I’ve since gained the courage to narrow my focus to the aspects of the game that are critical to getting a result.”

Dr Jones is one of seven coaches employed by the Hong Kong Rugby Union to whip the boys into World Cup condition. Each coach focuses on a particular aspect of the game including attack, defense, strength and conditioning, and video analysis. Working alongside Eddie Jones, famous for his meticulous and scrutinising style of coaching, has certainly had an impact. “It was a real honour to work with Eddie,” the Wales-born Dr Jones tells us, “but I’m a reasonably strong character in my own right and don’t want to be seen as a mini Eddie Jones.”

Before they received their contracts, the team – comprised of bankers, accountants, teachers, personal trainers and a pilot – were forced by their jobs to give training and tours a back seat. But the lure of a contract in professional rugby was an offer they couldn’t refuse. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity that we’d be unlikely to get in many other places around the world,” says Matt Lamming, who quit his job in finance and signed a contract with the ERP team last August. “It’s a bold move for the players to put their professional careers on hold and turn rugby from a mere social outing to their primary career,” adds Dr Jones.

While the choice was easy for some, leaving the security of a solid career to play rugby is certainly a move which runs counter to many traditional Hong Kong values. The decision wasn’t always easy and some families found their sons’ choice of rugby over career difficult to accept. Charles Cheung was one such individual and in deciding to pursue World Cup glory he was forced to put his job as a trainee solicitor at an international law firm on hold. “My family, especially my mother, are quite traditional and wanted me to stick with the ‘safer’ option of being a lawyer,” he explains. It took some persuasion, but in the end they were very supportive of my choice to do what I love and to chase my dreams.”

So how to transform a team of amateur or semi-professional rugby players into a hardened squad of professionals ready to take on the big boys of international rugby? Luke Davey, the strength and conditioning manager of the ERP is in charge of that very task. “My role is to look after the programming, injury prevention and fitness testing for the players,” explains Davey. He’s the man who devises individualised weekly gym programmes for each player and puts them through a series of grueling strength, power and fitness tests, like the dreaded ‘beep test’ of high school nightmares. “The players have to be extremely committed,” Davey continues. “From the moment they come into the training facility they have to work hard, but their job doesn’t stop there. In order to achieve the aims of the programme they have to eat, sleep and recover properly too.”

To monitor their development, monthly body composition tests measure the percentage of muscle mass, fat and water content, as well as other variables in each players’ body. “You can’t hide behind your computer screen hungover anymore,” laughs Cheung. “Your body can really feel the effects after a late night out or if you’re not recovering right.” Davey’s aim is to help the players reach their optimum body composition, dropping fat mass and replacing that weight with lean muscle mass. “The tight five [forwards in the scrum] are seeing a lot of their time training on the Wattbike with some players losing up to eight kilograms in fat mass in just a few months.” All tests and training sessions are being held at the new state of the art Elite Rugby Centre in the Technological and Higher Education Institute of Hong Kong (colloquially referred to as THE-i) in Kowloon Tong.

With the next Rugby World Cup increasing present on the horizon, the ERP has three years to continue developing its players at full throttle. Dr Jones acknowledges that each of the players has made a ‘hell of a commitment’ in joining the programme and dedicating their lives to rugby for the foreseeable future. “We’ll drive as hard as we can towards 2019,” insists the Welshman. “But if it doesn’t happen, there’s still going to be a future for the ERP, which is important in order to attract the next generation of players in Hong Kong.”

For more information on the Elite Training Programme and the national team visit hkrugby.com.

See also

HK Rugby Sevens guide
Your guide to this weekend's festivities including an overview of the main competition and what the national side is up to. Read more

 

Interview: Brian Stevenson
HK Rugby Union's President on the history of the Sevens and the future of rugby in our city. Read more

 

Hong Kong's Top 10: Rugby Sevens fans
To better prep you for the madness that you're walking into, here's a roundup of the 10 types of fans that you're most likely to see at the event.
Read more

 

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