The Hong Kong Rugby Union (HKRU) on Monday launched the city’s first-ever fully professional 15-a-side rugby programme, representing a multimillion dollar investment.
The new Elite Rugby Programme (ERP) will take on 35 to 40 male players for full-time terms lasting multiple years. There already exists a fully professional sevens rugby programme for both men and women, also established by HKRU.
Coconuts HK has asked HKRU whether a similar programme is in the works for women, but we have not yet received a response.
“The ERP is designed to further strengthen our domestic leagues, which will also enhance the standard of our national teams,” said HKRU General Manager of Performance Rugby Dai Rees.
In particular, it hopes that the new programme will encourage young talent to see rugby as a career option, thus incentivising them to return to Hong Kong after they graduate from university abroad. The loss of players who grow up playing age-grade rugby and later leave Hong Kong has long been a problem that has plagued local rugby.
The new ERP facility in Kowloon Tong.
In addition to the senior full-time players, who are allowed 12 hours a week to pursue their non-rugby professional interests, the programme has also contracted junior part-time players, who may be study or work elsewhere full-time.
The programme is led by former Hong Kong coach Leigh Jones, who has also resumed his prior position as head coach of the national fifteens rugby team. He had left the HKRU in 2014 to join Japan’s fifteens coaching team, playing a key role in the team’s win over South Africa in the World Cup last year – considered the greatest upset in rugby history, if not sports history.
Players do not have to be eligible to represent Hong Kong internationally in order be join the ERP, but most who join are either already eligible or will soon be. International Rugby Union regulations require national players to have been born in or have a grandparent born in the country they are representing, or to have lived there for the three years preceding their time of playing.
The programme will be run out of the also brand-new Elite Rugby Training Centre, which will be based at the Technological and Higher Education Institute of Hong Kong in Kowloon Tong.