Hong Kong captain Liam Slatem says the focus is firmly on themselves as they look to put in a performance capable of beating Korea in the next stage of the Asian Rugby World Cup 2023 qualification process.
Korea set up the date with Hong Kong on 9 July after defeating Malaysia last weekend in the semi-final of the Asia Rugby Championship 2022, with the winner of that match progressing to the final stage of the region’s qualification process which involves a winner-takes-all Asia/Pacific qualifier against Tonga.
Hong Kong haven’t taken to the field in a test since they beat Korea 64-3 at the end of June 2019, and in that time their playing programme has reverted to a part-time model due to the financial pressures of COVID-19.
Welshman Lewis Evans has come on board to replace Craig Hammond as head coach and is currently putting those squad members that are available to him through their paces in an attempt to get the group up to speed.
“Trying to get up to the intensity of test match rugby after so long out is not easy,” said Slatem.
“We’ve had such a long break, we have had to really start from the beginning again.
“We got together about a month ago but various circumstances haven’t allowed us to train together as a squad.
“Every now and again we have people in key positions with work commitments and they are not able to attend every session, so we’ve just had to juggle as best we can and, because of the limited numbers we have, to try and not lose people along the way.
“Looking at Korea, we always know what we are up against,” he added. “But for us, it is more a case of us getting prepared as best we can, individually and collectively, and trying to get on the same page, and then with whatever they bring, just trying to front up to that.
“The focus is on us. Being out of the game for so long we can’t really focus on anything else.”
“Qualifying would mean a great deal”
Slatem, who has won 15 caps for his country, won’t be there to lead Hong Kong against Korea as the fixture falls too close to his move date to the UK where he will play next season for Nottingham in the English Championship.
And the 33-year-old is not the only established international that took part in Hong Kong’s last Rugby World Cup qualification bid in 2018 likely to be absent.
“With the current situation in Hong Kong, we’ve unfortunately lost a few quality players who have gone elsewhere to play.
“Josh Dowsing, for example, has gone back to New Zealand and we have guys playing overseas and there’s uncertainty around their availability.”
With all the uncertainty, Hong Kong’s players haven’t dared to dream about the prize at stake – it was only back in April that they were given the green light to resume playing – but Slatem admits it would be quite something if they were to get past Korea and Tonga and make it to their first Rugby World Cup.
“We haven’t looked that far because we know the position we are in but we know what’s at stake and it would obviously mean a great deal for everyone. It would be a pretty nice story to be able to tell people.”