Training during lockdown has challenged coaches and players from all corners of the world, and it has been no different for those involved with Hong Kong rugby.

While the men’s and women’s teams have enjoyed access to the top-class facilities at the Hong Kong Institute of Sport in the build-up to the Olympic Games Sevens Repechage, nothing can replicate the tournaments that were lost to COVID-19.

However, Paul John and Iain Monaghan, the two Celts charged with getting their respective teams to Tokyo, have been thinking outside of the box in a bid to keep things interesting.

Speaking to World Rugby 50 days out from the women’s rugby sevens Olympic final, on 31 July, Scotsman Monaghan revealed that process involved sending his players on a metaphorical journey around the world.

“We shaped training around going up the seven summits of the world (Everest, Aconcagua, Denali, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Mount Vinson and Carstensz Pyramid). Needless to say, I wasn’t the most liked coach at that time because they were worked, physically,” he said.

“But with that it allowed us to learn about the different cultures of the teams we will play and where they come from, and the history of their sport.

“We set out tasks like passing the ball every day the equivalent distance it would take to climb one of the mountains, we camped out and learnt how to cook different national dishes, and learnt about tribes and their values and what makes them survive so long, and how we could maybe bring that into our high performance environment… things that gave a different slant to training.”

Self-reflection

Though ‘climbing a mountain’ was only an analogy, the work put in by the squad in improving themselves has been very real.

“They’ve had so much time to reflect on themselves because they haven’t been able to compete in tournaments,” said Monaghan.

“We’ve got to spend time on areas of our game and areas of ourselves as coaches and athletes that we wouldn’t ordinarily have time to do if we’d have been travelling to tournaments.

“Whilst we are competitive beasts and we want to be out on the pitch and playing in tournaments, quite quickly we have parked the disappointment of not getting there the first time around. That has motivated us to improve so that we can give it another shot in Monaco.”

Both the women’s and men’s teams were one win away from directly qualifying for the Tokyo Games, after reaching the final of the Asia Rugby qualification tournament in 2019.

The women could have no complaints as they were well beaten by China 33-0, but the men suffered an agonising sudden-death defeat to Korea.

Giant-killer

As the top two seeds and experienced HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series campaigners, France and Samoa will be favourites to claim the last place available at the Olympics in the men’s competition.

But John, a scrum-half in his playing days, has a history of making shocks happen having led 80/1 outsiders Wales to Rugby World Cup Sevens glory in 2009.

Would Olympic qualification for Hong Kong, who finished sixth in the repechage in 2016, match that achievement?

“It would rank alongside it, 100 per cent, for sure. That tournament is something that would live with us all forever,” he admitted.

Hong Kong’s women won only two of their five games in the last repechage in Dublin five years ago, crashing out of contention for a ticket to Rio in the pool stages. The men reached the Cup quarter-finals but a defeat to Samoa ended their involvement.

John’s side is in Pool A with France, Chile, Uganda and Jamaica.

“If you take the World Series teams out of this competition – Samoa, France and Ireland – we’ve played against everybody else regularly, either in the HK Sevens or the Challenger Series, and every game has been really competitive and really close. The very nature of the game means nothing is certain. Every point is going to matter,” he said.

“After the disappointment of not getting to the Olympics the first time around, we’ve now got a chance to put that right,” added John.

Neither of the teams will lack for repechage experience with stalwarts such as Natasha Olson-Thorne, Melody Li and Nam Ka Man returning for another crack at qualification in the women’s and captain Max Woodward, Jamie Hood and the McQueen brothers, Alex and Tom, in the men’s.

Can-do attitude

The women’s team are pooled with France, Madagascar and Colombia. The top two teams and the two best runners-up from the three pools make it through to the knockout stages.

Using their performances against Canada in October 2019 as a benchmark, Monaghan is confident that his team can stand toe-to-toe with the best.

“Being a realist, there is a lot of respect for Russia and France. Kazakhstan can show they can compete with any team on their day, and that’s the beauty of sevens. It’s the same with ourselves,” said Monaghan.

“We played Canada as part of our preparations for the Olympic qualifier and competed with them quite comfortably.

“They are a very difficult team to play against in terms of physicality, skill and speed and are Olympic bronze medallists. But we got over the jetlag and very much held our own.

“If we can perform, we can be in with a shout in any of the games.”

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