When the Hong Kong women’s team became the first team from the country to qualify for a Rugby World Cup in 15s, Jo Hull spoke of how she hoped that participation in Ireland 2017 would ignite interest in the sport in her adopted home.
The 41-year-old from Yorkshire in northern England was early into her role of Hong Kong RU head of women’s performance at the time and now, five years further on, it’s clear her wishes have been met.
Increased player participation numbers, a vibrant Women’s Premiership competition and a new self-confidence about Hong Kong’s place in the global game are all part of the legacy created by that historic tournament.
The #RWC2021 Final Qualification Tournament will take place on 18 and 24 February, 2022 in Dubai— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) November 22, 2021
Scotland, Samoa, Colombia and the winner of the Hong Kong v Kazakhstan play-off will compete for the final place in Pool A
“Our mantra going into that was to create a legacy,” said Hull, a former English Women’s Premiership player with Darlington Mowden Park Sharks.
“Since the World Cup, we have had girls playing rugby that never played before because they were inspired by seeing Natasha Olson-Thorne scoring Hong Kong’s first-ever World Cup try against Wales on TV.
“The biggest thing is that kids genuinely talk about wanting to go to a World Cup, whereas before 2016 qualification and the 2017 World Cup itself, it was never on the radar, it was never spoken about.
“We wanted to win the hearts of people and I think we did.”
With someone as enthusiastic about rugby as Hull leading the charge, it is not hard to see how there has been a sea-change in attitude.
“The World Cup was a game-changer for women’s rugby in Hong Kong because it made people realise it is possible to play outside of Asia and there is a route for women to play 15s rugby at a high level,” she said.
“Now, you go to youth clubs and women’s Premiership clubs and they talk about a ‘World Cup cycle’ and they talk about the next 15-17-year-olds involved in rugby who might have the ambition to stay in Hong Kong and be part of the next World Cup squad.
“The World Cup has given us a purpose and a four-year marker to create a high performance platform. The trickle effect of that is there is now a higher profile of the women’s game in Hong Kong and people around the world now know that Hong Kong play at that level, and that is huge.
“It’s a critical part of our performance pathway; we don’t view it as a one-off.”
A recap of the actions from today’s Dettol Hong Kong Women’s Premiership. Gai Wu RFC concluded the Game of the Week with a dominant 48-7 victory over @SCAACausewayBay at So Kong Po. Check out the highlights below!#hkrugby #ProtectTheBestMoments #AGameForAll pic.twitter.com/EtmWD7eop0— HKRU (@HongKongRugby) November 13, 2021
Old rivals Kazakhstan stand between Hong Kong and participation in the Final Qualification Tournament in Dubai, on 18 and 24 February, which will determine whether they go to a second Rugby World Cup.
If successful, Hong Kong will compete with the other regional qualifiers Scotland, Samoa and Colombia for the final ticket to New Zealand.
Hong Kong have only played six tests since they exited RWC 2017 with a 44-5 defeat to Japan in Belfast, with a won three, lost three record, to sit 18th in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings powered by Capgemini.
To have such little rugby is clearly not ideal but this has been offset by the growth in quality of domestic rugby, headed by the Women’s Premiership, and a number of training camps and home-based strength and conditioning programmes.
“The Women’s Premiership is now our bread and butter,” stated Hull. “Three to four years ago it was a pretty average competition but now, albeit coming through COVID, we’ve got a six-team competition that is a lot more competitive and physical and we’ve got overseas players coming over to play. Ex-internationals want to be a part of it.
“The World Cup was a launchpad to see how far teams could go in Hong Kong and in their understanding of what high performance is.”
Kazakhstan have had even less rugby, with back-to-back tests against China in 2019 their only involvement at this level in the last six years.
However, the Kazaks have a proud Rugby World Cup history, competing at six tournaments, and are still above Hong Kong in the rankings.
“A lot of their players have been training in an almost full-time environment,” said Hull.
“They have been to six World Cups and know how to play rugby.
“While people may underestimate them, for us they have been our arch-rivals for a long time now and we know it will be a hugely physical challenge.”
While qualification for RWC 2021 is the primary goal in the here and the now, Hong Kong’s longer-term ambitions are for the women’s national team to be involved in big tests on a regular basis.
“Getting to the next World Cup would be great for the team given the challenges and everything that everyone has been through. But, for us, it is about (Rugby World Cup) 2025 and strategically placing Hong Kong in the top 20,” said Hull, whose previous coaching experience includes spells working at various levels in England, Scotland and Canada.
“We’ve gone from 23rd to 18th now and we’d like a top 16 spot.
“Part of our focus on the women’s game is to be at World Cups and to be a part of WXV (the new global women’s competition), and to have opportunities to play at the highest level possible outside of Asia. To do that, we need to be in the top two in the Asia Rugby Championship on a regular basis.”