Hong Kong coach Leigh Jones has made four changes to his starting line-up for Saturday’s return match against the Cook Islands as the Asian champions look to secure their place in the RWC 2019 global repechage.
A clinical 26-3 victory last week in Rarotonga makes Hong Kong strong favourites to compete with Canada and two other teams for the 20th and final ticket to RWC 2019 in November.
The changes are split equally between forwards and backs with prop Adam Fullgrabe and hooker Ben Roberts joining tight-head Dylan Rogers in a new-look front row. Scrum-half Cado Lee Ka-to is given a chance to impress while Max Denmark lines up on the left wing.
Hewson to set new landmark
Saturday will be a special occasion for blindside flanker Nick Hewson whatever the result. Wearing the number six jersey he has made his own since his test debut against Germany in 2009, Hewson will win his 56th cap, putting him ahead of Dave Lewis as Hong Kong's most-capped player.
"Nick and I go back a long way, he's one of only two guys - Salom [Yiu Kam-shing] being the other, who has been on the journey since my arrival some eight years ago,” said Jones.
"He was my first selection as captain and someone I still rely heavily on when needing a player perspective on things. He's a real professional in his approach, with great leadership qualities, while being tough, durable and possessing a keen rugby brain.
“The fact that he takes over the cap record seems only right and proper for such a popular squad member. And at a remarkable 43 years of age, I firmly believe there are still a few games left in the old dog and fully expect him to add to that tally.”
Taking it to another level
While the 23-point advantage makes Hong Kong overwhelming favourites to take the next step on the journey to Japan 2019, Jones insists there will be no letting up from his squad.
“Last week, while the players were pleased with the result, they were also slightly subdued. They knew they left a lot of points on the field and were feeling that there is still another level of performance within the group,” he said.
“This week, the players have been pretty autonomous, driving themselves to find that next level of performance, and as you can imagine, there's been a real focus among the group with the senior guys really taking on the responsibility to drive our standards.”
Despite having the odds stacked against his side, Cook Islands captain Sam Anderson-Heather says his side will give it everything they have got at the Hong Kong Football Club.
“The picture is really obvious, we have got to score more points than they have in the second game. It really is a tough ask but we have put ourselves in that situation and have no one else to blame but ourselves,” said Anderson-Heather.
“We will go and work hard with the clear mind that we have to win and win big. That’s the challenge we have to overcome.”