Hong Kong Touch yet to Peak

Nov. 22, 2020 @ 9:45 UTC

With the pandemic under control in Hong Kong, the local Touch community is now eyeing off expanding the game locally and taking on the region's best in the 2021 Asian Cup.

Diana Li, from the Hong Kong Touch Association, was in Samoa when the Covid-19 pandemic emerged and was unable to return to Hong Kong for two months. She was travelling through the Pacific islands of Tonga, Fiji and Samoa at the time, and had taken some Touch balls with her on the trip. She would arrive in a village and invite the local people to play a game of Touch. Everywhere she went, people knew the game and how to play it. Language barriers were not an issue “Touch is a common language,” Diana said. 

Diana related this story to Peter Topp, Sports Development Director at the Federation of International Touch (FIT), in a recent episode of ‘Set of Six’. They were joined by Laurent Villemeur, National Head Coach of Hong Kong Touch. 

Corona Control

The response of the Hong Kong government to the pandemic has been a great success. In a city with a population of 7.5 million people, there have been 5,437 positive cases of Covid-19 and only 108 deaths. This has been achieved in one of the most densely populated communities in the world. The experience gained from previous epidemics, such as SARS, has enabled a swift and effective response to Covid-19. 

The Touch community of Hong Kong was affected by the pandemic. According to Laurent Villemeur, “The last eight months has been pretty tough”, with players resorting to online meetings, fitness sessions and refereeing clinics. An easing of restrictions enabled a return to training in early October. “Right now, the situation is pretty much under control. We have been back on the pitch for three weeks now, and there are some Touch competitions coming up,” clarified Paris-born Laurent, who is employed at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong.

Opportunity in adversity

For Diana Li, the Covid-19 hiatus has had some positive aspects. It has given players time to recover fully from injuries and also an opportunity to promote Touch in Hong Kong. Diana is particularly interested in developing the women’s game in Hong Kong and believes Touch is a perfect fit for girls. Chinese mothers generally don’t like their daughters to play a contact sport, so the low contact aspect of Touch is an excellent cultural fit for girls in Hong Kong, according to Diana.

 Strength in numbers

The Hong Kong Touch Association is not finding it difficult to recruit players. As the National Touch coach Laurent Villemeur was incredibly positive in describing the vibrant Touch scene in the harbour city. “It is really well spread in Hong Kong. There are clubs on Hong Kong island and the Kowloon side.” The condensed nature of the city, combined with an excellent public transport system, makes it easy for people to get together to play Touch. Laurent estimated a healthy player base of about 600 competition level players with another 2000 occasional players. Many rugby players play Touch in Hong Kong, and Diana Li is one of them. “Rugby training always starts with a game of Touch because the skills and the handling in Touch benefit the rugby skills,” Diana said.

Schools are the future

The future of Touch player numbers is in a good position with Laurent saying, “We have a massive school-based community. Touch is really well developed in International schools.” Touch is played in 17 International schools and also in 12 public schools according to Laurent. The next generation of senior Touch players is on the way. 

Tight squeeze

There are, of course, challenges for Touch in Hong Kong. The crowded, high-density nature of the city means space is at a premium, especially playing fields. Laurent said, “The pressure on access to facilities is amazing.” Many sports compete for access to sporting fields. “Being able to secure pitches to train on is quite complicated, so sometimes you have to train on hard surfaces and without lights,” Laurent said. 

Asian Champs focus

Access to more international competition is an aspiration for Hong Kong Touch in the future. As Diana Li said, “If you want to improve your skills, the best thing you can do is play with better teams.” Building stronger Men’s Open and Women’s Open teams is now the priority leading into the 2021 Asian Cup. When the pandemic situation improves, the intention is to play more matches against other Asian sides such as China, Singapore, the Philippines and Japan. Indeed, Hong Kong played a series of test matches against the mighty Cherry Blossoms in early January 2020.  In the meantime, the priority will be to strengthen the domestic leagues. 

Great expectations

There is tremendous optimism for the future of Touch in Hong Kong. National head coach Laurent Villemeur described his players as “Passionate, talented and skilful.” Combine this with a significant player base, and a healthy school Touch program and Laurent’s World Cup prediction could come true. “It’s just a matter of time until Hong Kong plays a massive role in the Men’s Open or Women’s Open.”