28 Jun 2018

Sport: Hong Kong sizes up Cook Islands ahead of Rugby World Cup qualifier

2:43 pm on 28 June 2018

Hong Kong is downplaying its status as Asia Rugby Champions prior to its World Cup qualification playoff with the Cook Islands, who have claimed underdog status.

Hong Kong win the Asia Rugby Championship 2018.

Hong Kong win the Asia Rugby Championship 2018. Photo: Hong Kong Rugby Union / Ike Images

The two teams meet in Rarotonga on June 30 with the return leg in Hong Kong on July 7.

The winner goes into a four team repecharge tournament for a place at 2019 World Cup.

Hong Kong coach Leigh Jones said with Japan missing from this year's Asia Rugby Championship (ARC) his team could only be considered the second best side in Asia.

"If we can win the ARC with Japan involved that would be a real notch in our belt," Jones said.

"But we're just pleased to win it and show we are certainly the second strongest team in Asia."

The cooks team manger Cam Kilgour said being able to use the ARC as build up to the play-off had given Hong Kong an advantage.

"We've got a two week preparation, or a week and a half preparation whereas Hong Kong have come off an Asian championship," Kilgour said.

"We've had no Test match rugby beforehand and there are a lot of road blocks in our way."

Some of those "road blocks" included not being able to select all of the Cooks' eligible players, Kilgour said.

The Cook Islands perform their haka.

The Cook Islands perform their haka. Photo: World Rugby

"There's probably a couple of other players that we were keen to get. Late in June, early July it's hard," he said.

"We do struggle with some Super Rugby clubs that don't release their players for us.

"We also have trouble with Japanese clubs that don't contract our boys if they're capped for the Cook Islands... It's a very tough call for the players. They want to play for their country but they have to support their families... so they've got to say no to us."

But the Cooks had still managed to assemble an impressive squad, according to Jones.

"You've got some real quality players there. Sam Anderson-Heather, Shahn Eru, Tyrone Viiga. These are all quality guys."

Otago hooker Anderson-Heather (30), who captained the New Zealand Barbarians against the British and Irish Lions, brought big game experience to the Cookies, Kilgour said.

Shahn Eru.

Shahn Eru. Photo: USA Perpignan

"He's followed by everybody in this side so it's great to have that experience and old head," he said.

"Shahn has played very well this year for his club (Perpignan) and got a number of man of the matches. He brings that professional experience that we need and he's a very, very tall player."

In terms of size, the Cookies had the advantage, Jones said.

"Your guys are going to be bigger, they're going to be used to playing at a higher tempo," he said.

"We may well struggle with the tempo of the game and managing some of the big guys."

Kilgour agreed his forwards were large but felt his side were still the underdogs.

"We do have a big pack and the coaches have pulled together a really strong squad," he said.

"We're excited and I know the community over here are really excited so hopefully we can pull off a miracle."

Hong Kong were "battle hardened", according to Jones, making the play-off about "the collective versus the individual".

That gave the visitors the edge, Kilgour said.

"Game time and playing together makes a big, big difference," he said.

"But these guys love their country. They want to play for the families, the communities in the Cook Islands so they're going to give it 120 percent.

"It's going to be a hell of a fight and I think Hong Kong have realised it's not going to be a walk over."

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