A remarkable return to the test arena after nearly three years on the sidelines has left Hong Kong just one win away from joining Chile as Rugby World Cup 2023 debutants in France next year.
A last-gasp 23-21 win over Korea in the Asia Rugby Championship 2022 final a fortnight ago has set up an Asia/Pacific 1 showdown with Tonga on Australia’s Sunshine Coast this Saturday.
Matches against South Africa, Ireland, Scotland and Romania in Pool B lie in wait for the winner and Tonga go into the match as favourites given they are five places higher than Hong Kong in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings powered by Capgemini and have a rich Rugby World Cup pedigree.
However, Hong Kong will believe anything is possible after what they have gone through.
Prior to the Korea win the last time Hong Kong had played a test was against Spain in November 2019, and that was as a fully pro team.
In their time away from the field, the Hong Kong Rugby Union (HKRU) was forced to go to a part-time model, resulting in a number of leading players and coaches moving on as they looked to further their careers elsewhere.
Participation in the Asia Rugby Championship was called off as a result but once the Asia Rugby Championship was reformatted and fixtures moved back, the HKRU decided to throw their hat back into the ring in May.
That left new head coach, the Welshman Lewis Evans, tasked with bringing together an eclectic squad at short notice from all corners of the globe while still hamstrung by quarantine and work-related issues.
🇨🇱 Congratulations to @chilerugby, who have made it to their first ever Rugby World Cup— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) July 19, 2022
There are now just two spots left at #RWC2023 🏆
Who's left in the running and how will it be decided? 🧵 pic.twitter.com/MCzCpsT3CJ
Moving parts align
Evans named 10 debutants in his new-look squad, including captain Josh Hrstich and vice-captain Glyn Hughes and, remarkably, with just two months’ preparation time behind them, they have given themselves a chance to go down in Hong Kong sporting folklore.
“We had a squad of lads in Hong Kong and a group of lads playing abroad and we managed to get a pretty strong team together but it is far from what the normal preparation period would have been for something as important as this,” said Hughes.
“In some training sessions, we had maybe only three or four backs training. So it has been challenging but we have managed to get through it.
“Some players are teachers and the timing has been fortunate because they have been able to work around that because it is school holidays and there are guys like me who are working remotely (as an investment banker).
“When you sit down and think about everything that has gone down, it is pretty mind-boggling,” Hughes added.
“If you’d have said we’d be where we are right now two months ago, I’d have bitten your hand off. It would have seemed impossible because there were so many moving parts and the decision had been made that we weren’t going to commit to these fixtures.
“We are kind of rolling with the punches but something special is happening.
“We have got a very tight-knit squad now, and we’re one game off from qualifying for the World Cup.”
Given the part-time nature of their squad, some of the heroes of the Korea win are doubtful for the Tonga game, including Gregor McNeish.
It was McNeish’s penalty with the last kick of the game in Incheon that has given Hong Kong another shot at making a first Rugby World Cup.
“As a goalkicker you kind of dream of those moments, it was a very special moment for him and the squad,” said Hughes.
“I was squatting down looking between my fingers when he was lining up the kick praying it would go over.
“Both sides were exactly the same, and considering what was on line, the Koreans really were really magnanimous and gracious in defeat afterwards.”
“In a good place”
If a last-minute matchwinner in a Rugby World Cup qualifier where everything was on the line wasn’t enough for the scriptwriters, Hong Kong had to win the game with 14 men for all but 30 seconds of the tie, following a red card to Charlie Higson-Smith.
“We had one red card, one yellow card (to Matt Worley), both to wingers, so for 10 minutes we didn’t have a winger on the field,” Hughes explained.
“We were obviously very rusty but we started strongly and were 15-0 up at half-time before they came back at us.
“To win it with the last kick was just another episode in what has been an amazing, crazy time. I feel Netflix could make a very good storyline out of it.”
Hughes and his team-mates hope the series still has some episodes to run, but the former English Premiership fly-half, who moved to Hong Kong in 2017, acknowledges Tonga represent a formidable challenge,
“It is going to be a step up against Tonga, for sure. They are going to be very physical and pretty direct, I’d imagine, but we are backing ourselves and looking forward to it.
“We are confident, and now with a game under our belts and more training under our belts, we are coming together nicely as a squad and I feel we are in a good place.
“It is 80 minutes of rugby and anything can happen in that time.”
If Hong Kong lose on Saturday, they will join Portugal, USA and Kenya in the Final Qualification Tournament, where the teams will compete later this year for the 20th and final ticket to France 2023.