by Ian Fitzell
THERE’S been a little bit of Hong Kong in the south Wales valleys for the last few days.
University of South Wales Sport Park in Treforest played host to the Hong Kong Dragons squad, ahead of their Rugby World Cup qualifiers next week.
The Welsh connection in the side is strong, including chief rugby operations officer, Dai Rees, a former Newport and Newbridge full-back, and head coach Leigh Jones, who is ex Ebbw Vale and Newport.
Their Hong Kong side used the USW facilities prior to travelling to Marseilles to play in the new repechage round-robin tournament. It is the last opportunity for a team to qualify for Japan 2019.
Four nations will fight it out to secure the 20th and final place at the Rugby World Cup. If Hong Kong get through it will be the first time they have qualified.
“The professional programme has been in place for three years, so this is the best chance that we’re going to get,” said Jones.
“We are also mindful that a lot of the developing countries are pumping a lot of resource in, as are we, so I think that we have to grasp this chance with both hands and go for it.”
The Jones-Rees duo are key to the success of the national side. Jones had a brief secondment working with Eddie Jones and Japan in the 2015 World Cup. Rees moved to the former British Colony in 2008 and has remained there since.
“When I was with the Dragons (Newport Gwent Dragons) I went out and was the first Welshman who went into the union (Hong Kong Rugby Union),” said Rees.
“We brought in Leigh as head of High Performance and as the national coach, Paul John as head of High Performance Sevens and a national coach and Huw Watkins who is a former first class referee and head of our match officials.
“We have Matt Carter former analyst at the WRU and Scott Snedden the former Blues and Cardiff player is now one of our premiership coaches. Good people have applied for roles and there is a good Welsh connection now.”
Hong Kong face Canada, Germany and Kenya, the winners securing their place in Japan next year.
The Canada side is also coached by a Welshman, former Wales international and Ebbw Vale flanker Kingsley Jones. His team have never failed to make the final stages of the competition.
Canada face the Hong Kong Dragons on November 23 in the Stade Delort, in what looks to be the deciding fixture of the tournament.
The prospect of the two Jones’ going head-to-is one to savour for the Hong Kong Dragons man.
“The very mention of his name brings a smile to my face!” said Leigh Jones.
“When the game went professional, Kinglsey and I were thrust into things up at Ebbw Vale. I was the professional coach and Kingsley was the captain, those halcyon days of early professionalism will linger on in my memories, as it will for Kingsley most probably. We’ve remained good friends ever since.”
But what is clear is when the repecharge begins next month, Jones knows that his friendship with his Canada namesake will have no bearing on how both sides approach the encounter: “Coaching is a funny old business, as soon as the repecharge draw came out, we contacted each other, but since, we’ve gone about our own business.
“We’ll probably catch up before the game, but we both have jobs to do and we’re respectful of that and very respectful of each other.”
The winner of the repechage in Marseille will take their place in Pool B at the Rugby World Cup 2019 alongside defending champions New Zealand, South Africa and Italy.