The winner-take-all sixteen team Olympic Games repechage tournament in Monaco this weekend (18-19 June) will produce the 12th and final team for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games Rugby Sevens competition.
After reaching the World Rugby World Sevens Series qualifier final at the Hong Kong Sevens in April, Hong Kong have been seeded as the top non-World Sevens Series team in Monaco, topping Pool D ahead of Spain, Mexico and South Korea. World Series veterans Samoa, Russia and Canada head the other three pools.
Coach Gareth Baber has selected an experienced squad with 11 of the 12-man team from the Asian qualifiers in November retained. The squad includes seven of the 12 players that reached the qualifier final at the Hong Kong Sevens last April. With some lingering injury concerns, the squad will travel with 13 players with the final 12-man squad to be named later in Monaco.
Baber has given the nod to up-and-comers Calvin Hunter and the 21-year old Eric Kwok Pak Nga, including them in the travel squad to Monaco. Kwok is in line to potentially mark his Hong Kong debut if he is included in the final 12 for this weekend. Hunter has had several senior squad selections on the Asian series in recent years but will potentially make his 7s debut in the Olympic qualification campaign in Monaco.
Captain Max Woodward, who was held out of the Hong Kong Sevens and the Asia Rugby Championship campaign to rest an ailing quad, returns to the squad as does winger Tom McQueen, whose recovery from a shoulder injury picked up in the domestic Premiership season remains on track.
Rowan Varty, Yiu Kam Shing, Jamie Hood and Alex McQueen add weight to a seasoned squad, while second-generation stars Cado Lee Ka To, Jack Capon, Chris Maize and Michael Coverdale are also included.
“It’s great to have Max and Tom back. They’re both good sevens players and big leaders in our team. They were born to play on stages like these and I hope there are more opportunities for them to do so,” said Baber.
“Both Calvin and Eric came up through the Under 20s sevens and have been training with the senior squad at the HKSI for years. They bring a bit of freshness, innocence even, to the side in just wanting to go out and play rugby. I’m excited to see how they will progress in a pressure tournament like this.
“Calvin has been there and done that – and equipped himself well. He made some mistakes, but he is learning from them and I think Eric will be in a similar position, but we all know that Eric is capable of producing good rugby for us when we need it,” Baber added.
Woodward is also confident in the squad saying, “We’ve kept a core group of players so our preparations have been good. Calvin and Eric have been training with us for a while and have improved a lot. They haven’t had much game time or a chance to show themselves, so it will be good for them get stuck in and gain experience.”
Woodward is also pleased with Hong Kong’s pool saying, “It’s good to have three teams we’ve played before in our pool as it can be a scary prospect playing teams you don’t know much about. Spain, Korea and Mexico are all good sides – we know this – but they’re also sides we’ve beaten before so we can take some confidence going in,” Woodward said.
The captain isn’t fazed by the prospect of meeting World Series core teams in Monaco either: “We know we have the game to challenge any team and win matches, but it’s about our consistency and hitting our performance markers every time we play. Regardless of what happens there isn’t really any pressure on us. These are the tournaments we want to play in. We don’t have enough chances like this so we’re excited to give it a go and see what happens,” added Woodward.
Before that prospect can be realised, Hong Kong will need to finish at or near the top of the pool. Spain poses the toughest challenge but Hong Kong will be buoyed by their 12-7 win over the Spaniards in last year’s World Rugby Sevens Series qualifier.
“This squad is experienced,” said Baber, “even the guys with few caps are part of the HKSI programme. We have some changes in personnel with the eligibility issue around what type of squad we can field, but the players know what they need to do and we set high standards for ourselves,” added Baber.
Baber knows that advancing at the top of the pool only earns Hong Kong the opportunity to play against teams like Samoa, who finished in the top ten on the World Series this season and collected their first Series win since 2012 in Paris just last month, but it is a prospect he relishes.
“That is where we want to be. We prepare the exact same way for a game like that as we would for any other game in the pool or on the Asian Series. We want to test ourselves and the World Series is the standard we want to be hitting.
“If we can play like we know we can, then there is an opportunity for us to nick results and push ourselves forward. But we need more opportunities like Monaco. What we can get done in two days of an international tournament like this is worth six months on the training field,” concluded Baber.
On the verge of his first appearance for Hong Kong young flyer Eric Kwok Pak Nga is trying to contain his excitement. “It has always been my dream to play for Hong Kong. I have a few goals in my rugby career. I want to represent Hong Kong, make the squad for the Hong Kong Sevens and of course represent Hong Kong in an Olympics. I have a chance to make two of those goals come true this weekend and I hope I can grab it. I’m excited, a bit nervous maybe, but I’m tying not to put myself under too much pressure. There are a few guys out with injuries, so I just want to make the best of this opportunity if I’m selected.
“I think my finishing and my stepping is one of my strongest skills. Hopefully I can contribute to the team offensively and also contribute to the team environment and bring my passion for the game and for the team into the competition environment. Even I’m not the most experienced guy I want to have an impact on the team,” said Kwok.
Olympic Repechage Tournament fixtures are here
Hong Kong 7s Squad for Olympic Repechage Tournament in Monaco
Max Woodward (Captain), Rowan Varty, Yiu Kam Shing, Jamie Hood, Alex Mcqueen, Tom McQueen, Lee Ka To, Calvin Hunter, Kwok Pak Nga, Jack Capon, Michael Coverdale, Chris Maize, Mark Wright.