Hong Kong and Cook Islands meet for the first time in international rugby in Rarotonga on Saturday with both teams chasing a place in the RWC 2019 global repechage in November.
The return leg is in Hong Kong next Saturday with the winner on aggregate staying in contention for the 20th and final ticket to Japan 2019, the first Rugby World Cup to be held in Asia.
As the higher ranked of the two teams by some 33 places and more than 15 points, newly-crowned Asia Rugby Championship (ARC) winners Hong Kong will be favourites to join Canada, Samoa or Germany and the yet to be determined Rugby Africa Gold Cup runner-up at the four-team repechage tournament.
Hong Kong’s undefeated run in the Asia Rugby Championship marked a successful first step on the road to Japan 2019, but the second is shaping up to be more sizeable, starting with a 25-hour trip to Rarotonga, the most populous island in the Cooks.
Coach Leigh Jones admits this weekend’s tie presents unique challenges but says Hong Kong have come well prepared.
It’s all about #RWC2019 qualifiers this Saturday.— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) June 28, 2018
🇼🇸 @manusamoa vs @DRVRugby 🇩🇪 15:10 (GMT+13)
🇨🇰 Cook Islands v @HongKongRugby 🇭🇰 15:00 (GMT-10)
Stream all the action on https://t.co/zptBY8jCkC and https://t.co/RsExjs4pvg pic.twitter.com/leMhsDqew9
Ready to go
“The players are ready to go. I am glad the game is this weekend, another week and the frustration may have started building, but the timing has been pretty good for us. We had a week to rest after the ARC and then two to three weeks to train and maintain intensity. We are in a good space,” he said.
Cook Islands had a circuitous route of their own to reach this stage. They lost to Tahiti in the Oceania Rugby Cup 2017, but that result was later overturned after Tahiti were found to have fielded ineligible players.
Ten long months have passed since that shock defeat, with team manager Cam Kilgour insisting the lack of game time makes his side firm underdogs.
"We've had no test match rugby beforehand. We've got a two-week preparation, or a week and a half preparation whereas Hong Kong have come off an Asia Rugby Championship," he said.
Jones, though, knows that the Cook Islands will still pose his side a big challenge, regardless of any differences in preparation.
“We’ve done our research on their players and they have some quality. Guys playing Top 14 in France, Mitre Cup in New Zealand, guys who’ve played against the British Lions in Super Rugby, so it will be challenging, particularly in the forwards, but we are very aware of how tough it’s going to be,” insisted Jones.
“It’s cup rugby and we’re away from home, so we need to be smart, our discipline needs to be really good, our set piece needs to function, and we need to be playing in the right areas.
“The series will be decided on aggregate points across the two games, so we need to be really smart in how we manage the game and manage the crowd on Saturday.
“Not to overplay it, but it’s probably one of the most important games in Hong Kong rugby history.”
Big game experience
Otago hooker Sam Anderson-Heather (pictured with scrum cap), who captained the New Zealand Barbarians against the British and Irish Lions in 2017, brings big game experience to the Cooks.
“He's followed by everybody in this side so it's great to have that experience and old head,” Kilgour said.
“Shahn (Eru) has played very well this year for his club (Perpignan) and got a number of man of the matches. He brings that professional experience that we need and he's a very, very tall player."
Even so, Kilgour says it would be “a miracle” if the Cook Islands could make it through to the repechage.
“We're excited and I know the community over here are really excited so hopefully we can pull off a miracle.”