Royce Chan Leong-sze is in no doubt about the impact rugby has had on her life.
Having joined a local club in her mid-20s primarily to please her boss at work, the game helped provide the structure that Chan had been missing since she graduated secondary school.
By her own admission, she was “quite a party person” prior to picking up an oval ball, however, within two years she had been selected for the Hong Kong women’s 15s squad and resolved to quit smoking and drinking.
Chan’s dedication was rewarded two-and-a-half years ago when, at the age of 39, she not only represented Hong Kong as they made their debut at Rugby World Cup 2017 but was named player of the tournament by her team-mates.
According to Chan, the game gave her another perspective on life and she is keen to pass that lesson onto the next generation of female rugby talent in the special administrative region.
“Rugby did change my life a lot,” the former hooker told World Rugby.
“I’m just different to how people enter this sport. It will be good to give back to the game and not only develop players, but also [help] transition players and see how they fit into the sport.”
Chan hung up her boots following RWC 2017 in Ireland and has since worked as a women’s high performance coach at the Hong Kong Rugby Union.
Exploring opportunities outside Asia
Coaching is the tool through which the 41-year-old believes she can “give back”, and to that end she was delighted to become one of seven female rugby coaches accepted onto the inaugural Women’s Sport Leadership Academy for High Performance Coaches (WSLA HPC) last year.
“The first email I received, that was quite unbelievable,” Chan admitted.
“They had mentioned the criteria and also the people who were applying. I still think for a small city around Asia that was quite unexpected and unbelievable.
“I’m quite a competitive person and I’m just keen to look for something more challenging.
“I was a player and then turned to a professional player, and then retired and [was] always in Hong Kong. I just think I should explore myself a bit outside Asia.”
Chan had been convinced of the benefits of experiencing life and rugby outside of Asia when working with Jo Hull in the lead-up to the tournament in Ireland.
Hull, the only female head coach at RWC 2017, had learned her trade in Scotland and Canada before arriving in Hong Kong in 2015.
“Jo did show me something special and different,” Chan said.
“She’s a brave lady and she showed me anything can happen if you try and believe in yourself. I think that triggered me to have a go.
“At the very beginning I was not quite enjoying [life] as a coach. I used to be a part-time coach before I retired but I didn’t think I was a good coach, I never thought I would take a coaching role as my career.
“Once Jo arrived I think the message she gave us, the team, the system and everything she tried to bring through actually gave me something really outside the box for me to think about.
“It’s hard and it’s challenging but I think something that you can always try to give back in another way. And I’m still learning every single day.”
RWC 2017 legacy
She might not have believed you had you told her this five years ago, but Chan would now welcome the opportunity to coach Hong Kong, and Rugby World Cup or Olympic qualification would be her number one ambition.
“My ultimate goal would be seeing Hong Kong, or leading Hong Kong to, qualify for another World Cup in 15s and also make us qualify for the Olympics,” she said.
Hong Kong’s women will take part in a repechage tournament in June, with two spots at Tokyo 2020 up for grabs, while the 15s side will compete in the Asia Rugby Women’s Championship for a place at RWC 2021 in New Zealand.
Chan knows it will be tough for both teams but she is also well aware of the impact qualification would have on the women’s game in Hong Kong.
The former Hong Kong captain is proud of the effort put in by the side she led in Ireland, where they finished 12th, and does not measure their success merely by results on the pitch.
“The trigger point was the game when we played New Zealand,” Chan explained.
“Of course we were the underdog and we knew it would be a tough time for us but as long as we were enjoying it, I think that is the message.
“We carried on throughout the whole game and we were trying hard to be out there. As long as we could smash and do something for ourselves I think that was a big success for us.
“That is something we always missed and I think the girls started thinking about that because we went to the World Cup, we qualified.
“I thought some of us still felt like ‘oh, we already qualified – that’s all we can do’. But I think one of the messages we gave out throughout the whole campaign was, we are not only joining the World Cup for the first time, we are trying to compete in the World Cup.
“I think that’s quite a strong message for the team.”