The Rugby World Cup will remain out of reach in Hong Kong until there is a radical change in the way the game is organized at home and abroad

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World Rugby recognizes that things need to change too. Alan Gilpin, the CEO of the game’s governing body, was on hand to watch Portugal’s spectacular 16 draw against the United States and Hong Kong’s equally thrilling 22-18 win over Kenya last week.

His remark that Hong Kong was in exactly the same position as four years ago speaks volumes, but it was not made without acknowledging the struggles of the past three years, or where his organization could make a difference.

“If you’re in the position where Hong Kong and Korea are, where you’re just below the level you need to be to compete in major world tournaments, how are they progressing?” he said.

The CEO has identified investment in more competition at regional level, not just the Asian Rugby Championship, more investment in high performance and player pathways, so those who are good enough can play at a higher level .

Internationally, Hong Kong and South Korea have long outgrown their immediate surroundings, but have not yet grown enough to step outside the confines of Asia Rugby tournaments with any hope of success.

Kenya’s Samuel Asati is tackled by Hong Kong’s Sean Taylor (left) during the RWC 2023 Final Qualifying Tournament in Dubai. Photo: World Rugby

And therein lies the problem. Development requires competition, but when it comes to Hong Kong and Korea, they only know each other, and that’s only for one game a year.

“How can we find for Hong Kong and Korea the right kinds of competitions more often so that they play at the level they need to play to continue to improve, that’s a conversation we’ve had a lot with Asia Rugby “, Gilpin said.

“Here we are with Hong Kong in this final qualifying tournament, like they were four years ago, how can we make sure they have the opportunity to be in a high position in four years.”

Everyone recognizes that the gap will not be closed with the status quo, and if the men’s World Cup expands to 24 teams, with an extra place for Asia as has been suggested, then this problem must be resolved.

Especially since the governing body has no desire to see the return of brave underdogs hammered by more than 100 points on the game’s biggest stage.

“And that’s a big part of the expansion thing,” Gilpin said. “We would like to grow, whether in 2027 or 2031, but if we go from 20 to 24 teams, how can we ensure that the next four are ready.

It’s good to have national competition, and then what? What is this stepping stone to the next level
Alan Gilpin, CEO of World Rugby

The answer doesn’t just lie in international rugby either. The insufficiency of the national game in Asia, with the exception of Japan, is evident and this is where Hong Kong must evolve to develop players capable of reaching a World Cup.

Discussions within the union have focused on Japan and a potential franchise team playing in that country’s domestic competition, bridging the gap between the premiership at home and the international stage.

If that’s not feasible, then the player journeys Gilpin refers to become the next best option, or a club competition pitting the best in the region against each other.

“I think it’s part of the Asia-Pacific conversation,” Gilpin said. “How can we ensure that there are opportunities for players in Asia to play at the right level of cross-border competition that will allow them to progress.

“And the same kind of conversations are happening in North and South America. It’s good to have national competition, and then what? What is this springboard to the next level.

Hong Kong's Jack Neville and Kenya's Bryceson Adaka chase a stray shot in Dubai.  Photo: World Rugby

Hong Kong’s Jack Neville and Kenya’s Bryceson Adaka chase a stray shot in Dubai. Photo: World Rugby

Ultimately, the HKRU want players like Alexander Post, Jack Neville and Matt Worley, who all play rugby at English Second Division clubs, to be the rule rather than the exception.

City players would be developed to a point and then sent to improve further in better leagues, wherever that might be. Where it’s not is at home.

Six teams playing each other multiple times in a season is fine for amateur rugby, but not if you have plans for greater success.

Too often in Dubai, players accustomed to making three or four yards after impact have struggled to make one. Not for lack of effort, but because they are rarely challenged at home.

Clubs will of course have to get on board, and if change is to come the days of importing legions of new recruits with the aim of winning locally will have to come to an end, especially as the residency rule of five years now makes it unlikely these players would ever represent Hong Kong.

This is where the union overhaul could be divisive, but the apex of any sporting pyramid is success on the world stage and that only happens if the base is strong.

Gilpin said it was his organization’s responsibility to help with that, and while it was a challenge, it was “also an opportunity.”

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