Hong Kong hope their South China Tigers side can help a new format of the game catch alight in Asia. This feature first appeared in Rugby World magazine at the end of May
Hong Kong hope Global Rapid Rugby will fire the Asian game
AS kids play touch on the pitch just metres away, lock Fin Field is maintaining his flow of chatter in Mandarin. Several times he stops to throw an aside in English our way, before switching back again. It’s good practice for him because with a contact-heavy session ahead for the South China Tigers here at Kowloon’s King’s Park, he may have to run a few translations for his Chinese team-mate Ma Chong.
Welcome to a night’s training with one of Asia’s freshest rugby franchises for the aptly named Global Rapid Rugby.
You may have heard of the new… well, let’s call it a rugby concept rather than a league. The brainchild of Australian mining billionaire Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, the competition has its rootsin the movement to save the Western Force from rugby oblivion. With the Perth outfit being booted out of Super Rugby in 2018, Forrest made moves to create a new Asia-Pacific competition. The game he wanted to see in it was deliberately and totally different.
Suddenly the region was abuzz with the prospect of taking pro rugby into their own heartlands; to give the area’s game the foot-up it desperately desires. In 2019 we were promised an eight-team event with sides competing for a Grand Final prize pot of Aus$1m (£550,000).
This was not possible with such a tight turnaround, with only the Singapore-tied Asia Pacific Dragons and Hong Kong’s South China Tigers able to put up a team against the Western Force from the start. Instead, a ‘showcase’ began with a World XV-Force opener. There were also hopes Currie Cup’s Falcons would parachute into a base in Malaysia later in the showcase. It never happened.
The Tigers roared into action, though.
“We’re just happy it got off the ground really,” says Tigers head coach Craig Hammond before training fully kicks off. “Really, it all got chucked together pretty quickly. This is the opportunity we need for our guys to improve week in, week out. We couldn’t do that (before).
“We’d just finished our domestic club season and then we’ve got the Asia Rugby Championships (played over late May and June). So we need these games. If we can live at this intensity with the Force and Pacific Dragons, it would put us in good stead for the Hong Kong national team playing the Malaysias and Koreas in the ARC.”
And this, in rugby terms at least, is why a new league is perfect for Hong Kong.
It’s likely you know of rugby in the are thanks to the world-renowned Hong Kong sevens. You might know the men’s national team were in the repêchage for the final place at the 2019 World Cup, with that spot eventually taken by Canada. You might even know of Hong Kong’s six-team men’s Premiership.
What you might not know is that a few years back, Hong Kong set up their Elite Rugby Programme (ERP) alongside their sevens and women’s programmes – a full-time scheme for the national team players and club guys waiting to qualify. Effectively, the Test group went pro.
But the old, patchy season structure meant some played Tests following a break after the club season and others straddled Hong Kong’s push to make the World Sevens Series and then ARC.
This unpredictable new event fills a gap. A new brand was created, with new kit to wear, and for the showcase they got to welcome in more stars of the club game, as well as former England wing Tom Varndell, Fiji’s Samisoni Viriviri and two mainland Chinese players.
According to Tigers’ co-captain Liam Slatem, the new competition has added some pep to Hong Kong’s step.
“It’s exciting,” says the scrum-half. “In the ARC you will play against similar opposition. Korea and Malaysia like to play a chaos brand of rugby. Then you come up against the Western Force and they have a mean pack, decent backs and you don’t know what you’re coming up against because this one guy can run over your whole team and that guy can sidestep anyone. It’s just different, really.
“We need the step up, 100%, but we’re not too far away. In the repêchage, we let touch-and-go moments slip. Against opposition like that once or twice a year, you either convert chances or you’re at the other end of the scoreboard.
“No disrespect to Korea and Malaysia, but you can make mistakes against them. Make them against the Force and you are punished and clawing back into it.”
Slatem admits “chaos rugby” does suit Hong Kong, who will never be the most monstrously large side. It’s a good thing GRR has some chaos-friendly laws then!
The format is unconventional, with nine-point power tries, time limits on set-piece, punishments for kicking the ball out, rolling subs and a 70-minute run-time. The product is, well, rapid, with a high ball-in-play time. Hammond says: “It’s made us think a little bit more outside the box.” The group will go back to the ARC eventually, reverting to the game’s typical laws – though they feel the side will inevitably evolve thanks to GRR.
Some hope the league’s bosses will be disrupters, that rugby needs another big shake-up. But it will take time.
According to Matt Hodgson, who was a stalwart for the Force and now works alongside Forrest at GRR: “What we don’t want to do is have a one-year plan or a two-year plan. We want this to be a long-established competition which is fruitful for the regions we’re going into.”
World Rugby have sanctioned this new, wild ride for ten years, and with the governing body vocal about wanting to change laws to improve player welfare, they will be monitoring how GRR goes.
When asked if he understands fears for the league’s stability following failure to launch a full package first time round, Hodgson insists they had to replan for every eventuality – and will still do so.
He says there’s market research being conducted in the Pacific Islands to find fair ticket pricing. They’re looking at how to mix educating some in Asia about the game with putting on a spectacle for those who can’t care less about rugby. And you must appeal to the uninitiated.
Which brings back in wing Ma Chong. The Tigers coaches say the China Sevens skipper is “electric in space”. But he has very little knowledge of 15s, with the abbreviated game much bigger at home. He was also brought southward because – although a promising talent – he can help rugby’s spread in China.
“The China angle is a huge part of what we’re trying to do,” says Hong Kong CEO Robbie McRobbie. “There’s lots of talk about development in China but it’s a very complicated place and it’s a very, very complicated rugby market.
“The Greater Bay Area – between Hong Kong, southern China and Macau – has a population of 67m people. They speak Cantonese, there’s more similarity of culture shared and in terms of logistics, there’s a recent bridge and there’s a high-speed train, so the movement of people in the area is much easier.
“The dream scenario is that GRR becomes the catalyst for developing Asian rugby. Having Fiji, Samoa and hopefully Tonga involved going forward is fantastic, for the Force it makes a lot of sense and a team out of the Northern Territories in Australia could work. But for Asia, there is already a rich rugby culture in Sri Lanka, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and it can be built in China.
“Without it, I don’t really see Asian rugby being competitive going forward.”
McRobbie reckons this competition needs at least five years before people can expect to see the “fruits of what it can produce”. But he is grateful that Forrest has put his money where his mouth is and kick-started something.
Yet the CEO believes GRR needs hard work from all sides. “Andrew’s recent statements make this clear: he’s prepared to put money in as long as people get behind it. I respect that. He’s ponying up a lot of cash but if communities in the Asia-Pacific region don’t embrace this, don’t get excited about it, you can’t expect him to keep pouring money in. People must build on the foundation he’s generously put in place.”
Now concluded, the Force won the Asian showcase in early May. But Hong Kong are happy with the start. With their ERP foundations in place, in both rugby and business terms, they hope they can now construct something even greater.
We will see how rapid the process is.
This feature first appeared in Rugby World magazine at the end of May.