The untold story of Hong Kong girls rugby

Photo credit: Sai Kung Stingrays 

 

Aside from hosting perhaps the most iconic Sevens tournament in the world, Hong Kong is also home to thriving mix of girls tournaments, held in various formats and on different playing surfaces. 

 

In particular, the Sai Kung Stingrays' All Girls International Sevens has achieved international renown as the biggest age-grade girls' tournament in the world, with the likes of 2019 Hong Kong Sevens debutant Sarah Lucas playing in the tournament only a year before her senior call-up. 

 

For Lucas' Hong Kong teammate Rachel Fong, it is a tournament that is especially close to her heart.

 

Fong (fourth from left) at the 2019 All Girls International Rugby Sevens, now in Hong Kong colours. 

Photo credit: May James Photography 

 

"I remember playing on the Happy Valley pitch when it was still dirt - it also poured like no tomorrow which made the pitch really muddy - it's one of my favourite memories!" said the Hong Kong Football Club captain.

 

Fong, who played mini-rugby in the first All Girls Tournament in 2006, credits her mother Suki Fong and Gemma MacFarlane (née King) for championing the cause of girl's rugby and gaining recognition from the Hong Kong Rugby Union (HKRU). 

 

However, the origins of Hong Kong girls rugby can be traced back even further. 

 

Photo credit: Hong Kong Rugby Union 

 

Post-colonial growth

 

As the sun finally set on the British Empire in 1997, a new chapter in Hong Kong's history was slowly unravelling. 

 

This was a time when society was awash with uncertainty - fears over the prospect of Chinese rule and concerns about their place in Hong Kong's future saw many families return to their country of origin. 

 

Others, however, were undeterred and forged on - including Molly Emrick.

 

While long-term future of the men's game was all but secured, the flame of women's rugby was only starting to ignite.  

 

Emrick set about sowing the seeds of women's and girl's rugby, with the establishment of Girls Colt Rugby in 1990 allowing for Hong Kong girls aged 16-18 to enjoy a game after school.   

 

Photo credit: Hong Kong Rugby Union

 

The first Hong Kong Girls U19s National Squad was later formed by Yvonne Shannan, who embarked on a historic tour to Guangzhou under the guidance of herself and former Hong Kong captain Stuart Krohn, donning kits acquired from Fa Yuen St..

 

The side was defiant even when faced with a Valley Ladies squad stocked with Hong Kong National players, holding their more illustrious opponents to a draw at halftime and falling only to a solitary try in the Women's 7s Tournament. 

 

They would go on play at the Hong Kong Sevens for the first time, with Valley and Police having previously made history of their own by putting on an exhibition match at the competition in 1994. 

 

Emrick's belief in the equality of opportunity was all-encompassing, extending from between the sexes to expatriates and the local Chinese community, as well as across all age groups. 

 

Photo credit: Hong Kong Rugby Union 

 

Breaking stereotypes 

 

While strides were being made in the senior women's game, the inclusion of younger age groups proved a tougher challenge.  

 

Touch rugby may have been acceptable, but the idea of girls subjecting themselves to the strains and impact of playing full-contact age-group rugby would seem the last thing on any parent's mind 

 

Such was the task facing Laura Cowan, who was handed the baton from Shannan as Hong Kong U19s Coach and Girls' Representative. 

 

Nevertheless, Cowan managed to add to the opportunities available to young women, not least in terms of playing against other teams and garnering international experience. 

 

 

Among her achievements include overseeing the expansion of girls rugby to include the U16s division, as well as taking the U19s on various tours during her tenure.

 

Once Cowan had left her mark on the girls' rugby scene, her successor was one equally in tune with the Hong Kong Rugby scene - former Sevens star Tash McCarroll, who dedicated a year to expanding the age-grade range further by incorporating the U14s into the schoolgirl's league. 

 

At the same time, Karen 'Lola' Williams took over as Coach for the then U19s National squad in the mid-2000s, enlisting Erin Emrick as manager for many successful tours to countries such as Singapore, Thailand & Sri Lanka.

 

It wasn't before long that their efforts had taken on international significance, with Singapore side Tanglin Rugby Club's Mike Jackson crediting them for popularising contact rugby in the region in a 2018 interview.  

 

"We started this (the All Girls Contact Rugby Tournament) around 2 to 3 years ago, but interestingly it was a few Hong Kong girls who started to live in Singapore and had been playing girl's contact,"  

 

"It is a cross-club initiative and we now have 80 to 90 girls in Singapore playing girl's contact rugby." 

 

Photo credit: Asia Rugby

 

Lasting legacy 

 

Back home in Hong Kong, Gemma King had stepped up to the mark as Girl's Representative.

 

Upon moving into this position, she oversaw further growth within girls rugby by facilitating the inclusion of both U16s and U14s into Hong Kong's annual New Years Day Tournament.

 

As a result of this, girl's rugby was met with even greater exposure, 2007 seeing the U19’s playing at the Hong Kong Men's Sevens, as well as the U14s and U16s playing in their demo games at the 10th Anniversary of the Women's Sevens. 

 

The 2006-07 season also marked the separation of Clubs from the Schools league, as Girls Rugby had grown so large there was no way to accommodate all the players on Thursdays and Fridays. 

 

To cope with this, the Girls Committee was set up involving representatives from all clubs and Suki Fong taking the position as Chairwoman. 

 

 

Although now under the management of the Sai Kung Stingrays, Fong and King had also joined forces to create the All Girls Tournament in March 2006, with the blessing of the HKRU. 

 

Their dream finally came to fruition amidst overcast skies at the Happy Valley venue allocated by the HKRU, with medals featuring pink ribbons in aid of cancer research - the humble beginnings of what is now an globally-recognised tournament held annually at King's Park. 

 

While some of the women have now taken up different roles or are perhaps no longer in the fray of Hong Kong rugby altogether, they certainly watch on and share in every victory and milestone - be it participating in the 2018 World Cup, the world-class training facilities that have since been constructed or the availability of professional contracts for women with the utmost pride.   

 

In turn, it is worth remembering and appreciating the names that have been and gone, but left behind a lasting foundation in the sport that will serve generations of girls to come.

 

 

More Chaos thanks Gemma MacFarlane for kindly supplying the second All Girls Rugby Sevens Tournament programme for our reference, as well as Rachel Fong for providing additional information.  

 

 

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