Saturday 21 October 2017 / 02:58 AM

LEAGUE PASSPORT: HONG KONG RUGBY LEAGUE GROWS LIKE ITS SKYLINE

“We’ve just secured our first sponsors, a local pub. It’s great news.“

This was Ray Meli, former Hong Kong Rugby League (HKRL) secretary, speaking to League Passport in February 2015. He and a few like-minded individuals established rugby league in Hong Kong and was excited by the opportunities.

Ok – he was super-excited. Rugby league was the bastard cousin to the prolific rugby union set in the territory. The pride of the land and the weird cousin. Sounds a bit like France’s sporting challenges in the 1940’s? I digress.

“League is played here, just in different forms,” Meli said.

“Touch football is huge in Hong Kong. We came across a guy who was running a touch competition. Initially, we will start growing the Hong Kong Rugby League banner via these types of competitions.”

Fast-forward two years and Hong Kong has their first 13-a-side domestic club competition, the Hong Kong Rugby League ICG Super League. The HKRL also has a number of sponsors (including major partner I-Consulting Group), a successful Nines competition (now in its third year, attracting teams from Papua New Guinea and Thailand) and a prospect of reaching the Emerging Nations World Cup in 2018.

Neville Metcalfe, Managing Director of the HKRL, says the domestic competition is a natural progression after some strong growth over the past few years.

“Our past events, such as the Nines and the HK Residents XIII tour, have been incredibly popular with players and fans alike and, with the Emerging Nations World Cup (ENWC) on the horizon, this will be a huge landmark in the progression of the game both here in Hong Kong and the Asia region as a whole.”

The ENWC – initially mooted for this year – could definitely be a fillip for rugby league in the country. They’ll have a captive audience, a standalone event and a chance to show their wares against other emerging nations.

Meli and his team started with ‘tag’ rugby league in schools, progressing on to an open day and registration. They also developed their own “State of Origin” game – an Island side versus a Kowloon and New Territories team – that has also been popular.

Interestingly, the HKRL’s initial challenge was to dispel a view that there was room for only one form of rugby (rugby union heavily established already). They decided to work with rugby union – framing the code as an addition to rugby league – and used tag as a point of difference.

On current form, Hong Kong may surprise a few come ENWC time. I’d like to think their development is representative of the interest in rugby league in a whole host of countries.

Nigel Wood tells us league is played in more than 60 countries around the world. If Hong Kong can establish a local competition – like Thailand and Philippines before them – then who isn’t to say international rugby league is developing at a furious rate?

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About the author

Andrew Marmont

Andrew is a freelance writer, producer and presenter. He writes for Big League, Rugby League World and Inside Sport. His book ‘Their Finest Hour: A History of the Rugby League World Cup in 10 Matches’ will be published in July 2017

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