With three tries in his first three appearances for Hong Kong in the Asia Rugby Championship 2019, Paul Altier has made a hugely impressive start to his test career.
But for the next few weeks, the goal-kicking full-back cum fly-half’s attention is purely on Brazil, as he looks forward to a landmark fourth World Rugby U20 Trophy tournament.
Altier has played in every tournament since making his debut as a raw 16-year-old in Zimbabwe in 2016 and holds the individual record for points in a match after scoring 36 – including a hat-trick of tries – in Hong Kong’s win against hosts Romania in 2018.
Hong Kong doesn't have a great pedigree at this level, the win over Romania was only their second in 20 attempts, but last year’s best-ever finish of sixth sees them travel to South America with much stronger self-belief.
“To be honest this year is different from other years. We’ve got a lot of players who’ve played for the U20s two or three times before (including his co-captain Sam Tsoi who also made his test debut this month) and we’re really aiming to win all four games. In the past, we’d go out there wanting to get a good result but without having the sense of belief that we should have had," said Altier.
In Brazil, Hong Kong are pooled with 2017 runners-up Portugal, Canada and Tonga.
Assessing the competition, Altier said: “Portugal are a good team, but we almost beat them in Uruguay (in 2017) and they ended up finishing second. You just never know what kind of team will turn up with Hong Kong. I think we can get a good result against them.
“We also played Canada in Uruguay and they were really physical. We’re not known for our physicality – more a fast-paced style – so we struggled quite a lot against them.
“We’ve never played Tonga, but last year we played Samoa, who’d just come down from the Junior World Cup, and we did well against them, only trailing by seven points at half-time. Islanders pretty much play a certain way; they are quite big and have good skills and I think we’ll know what to expect from Tonga.”
Altier, who weighs just over 80kgs, has quickly become accustomed to playing against bigger opponents having made the step up to senior international rugby this month.
“When you are a 20-year-old guy like me playing against 30-year-old men, weight is obviously going to be an issue. They’re 30 to 40 kilos heavier than you, so I try to use my strengths: speed, agility, to make up for that.”
Although he was in the larger squad for last year’s Asia Rugby Championship, having been part of the Hong Kong Sevens full-time programme the year before that, Altier had to wait to pull on the Hong Kong men’s jersey.
Now, three caps into his test career, Altier is pleased with how things have gone.
Game of his life
“Last year I trained with the senior squad as well but didn’t get any game time, so it was really good that this year the coaches chucked me in at full-back. I was quite nervous before my debut against Korea, but I’d had a good game when we had a hit-out against the South China Tigers, a team that plays in Global Rapid Rugby, so that gave me confidence and it went alright, and we got a good win.”
From being one of the young guns in the test team, Altier admits it feels “a bit weird” to suddenly find himself as one of the more senior members of the U20 squad.
But the U20 Trophy holds fond memories for him, and the Romania win, he admits, was probably the game of his life to date.
“I hadn’t scored a try in the Trophy before then and I managed to get three. I thought to myself beforehand that these are the games where players who have it in them, show up, and I just went out there and played and trusted what the coaches had put in place. I was in the right place at the right time and everything kind of went our way.
“That game was one we really targeted as one we thought we could get a win and there was a lot of pressure going into it, knowing that our best-ever finish was on the line, and we actually managed to win quite comfortably which was good.”
Born in Thailand to French parents but raised in Hong Kong and now studying sports performance at the University of Bath in England, Altier is clearly someone destined to go places, geographically and metaphorically.