Royce Chan Leong-sze is enjoying the challenge of leading Hong Kong China on a journey she hopes will transport the team to a dream destination: WXV.
Following a three-year hiatus from the test stage due to the impact of the pandemic, Chan – who was named Head of Women’s Rugby Performance at the Hong Kong Rugby Union in March – coached the team to back-to-back victories against Kazakhstan in December.
On Monday, Hong Kong China made it three wins from three since their return to international rugby, and stretched their unbeaten run to five matches, when they kicked off their two-test tour to the Netherlands with a 22-17 defeat of Sweden in Amsterdam.
Chan admits to organisational rustiness ahead of the trip, the team’s first overseas since back-to-back victories against the Netherlands at the National Rugby Centre Stadium in November 2019.
She was pleased, therefore, to see her team get over the line against Sweden, who pulled level at 17-17 with around 10 minutes left, especially as Chan was able to hand debuts to seven players.
“It was massive to have a number of new caps in the game and still be able to bring home the win,” Chan told World Rugby.
“There was a tough patch in the second half, when the Swedish tries came in quick succession, and that wasn’t easy to deal with.
“Putting the bench players on to energise [the team] but also emphasise the game plan helped to put us back on track to finish off the game.”
Chan and Hong Kong China will play their second and final match of their trip on Saturday, when they return to the National Rugby Centre Stadium to take on the hosts.
The two-test tour was organised as preparation for the Asia Rugby Women’s Championship 2023, which will be held in Kazakhstan at the end of the month and will decide the two teams from the continent who will compete in WXV later this year.
Coming at the end of a long domestic season that started in September, Chan paid tribute to the resilience and commitment of her players, who have had to juggle training commitments with their jobs.
“It has been a lot to ask that group of players to stay engaged and stay having that performance mindset, but they have been coping really well,” she said.
Saturday’s match against the Netherlands should focus minds. Hong Kong China currently sit 15th in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings powered by Capgemini, one place and just 0.01 points above their hosts.
The tourists won the two previous meetings between the sides, 14-12 and 18-0 in Amsterdam three and a half years ago, but Chan is refusing to read too much into those results.
“There is always a good excitement when you play a close, close team in the world rankings,” Chan said.
“We know Netherlands has been in training, they have been playing in the European championship and they are in really good shape. They are big girls.
“We just need to see how it goes in the game. It has been like three years now, actually... It's unsure, uncertain, but [we’re] also excited as well.”
Whatever the result on Saturday, Chan is confident Hong Kong China have learnt lessons on and off the pitch that will stand them in good stead in Almaty later this month.
Hong Kong China meet the hosts, Kazakhstan on 23 May with the winner going on to play either Japan or China in the Asia Rugby Women’s Championship final five days later.
The two victories Hong Kong China earned against Kazakhstan in December were their first in five meetings with their Asian rivals.
And Chan, who could call on several players who competed in the World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series last month for the continental tournament, knows she cannot take anything for granted. Hong Kong China lost 40-0 on their only previous visit to Almaty, in April 2015.
“We just need to put our heads in the right place, to focus on Kazakhstan,” she said. “They gave us a big amount of pressure in the second game [in December], it was a marginal win.
“We were in our hometown, now they are the host for the ARC. We don’t know what will happen.”
With two places in WXV up grabs later this month, victory against Kazakhstan would secure Hong Kong China’s place in at least the third tier of World Rugby’s new annual global competition. The winner of the final will take their place in WXV 2.
“[It would be] fantastic, a dream,” Chan replied when asked what it would mean to qualify.
“If Hong Kong China were able to qualify for the first ever WXV, I think it shows a really good example for performance sports in Asia but also in Hong Kong China as well.
“Hopefully we will build good role models and try to encourage more people to get involved.
“COVID has been quite damaging in terms of player numbers. So, for the bigger picture, [by qualifying] we can try to expand our player numbers by bringing people back to rugby but also performance rugby.”