Showing typical ambition and fortitude, Sedbergh took up the invitation from Hong Kong Football Club to enter an Old Sedberghian team into their prestigious rugby 10s tournament, in the days immediately preceding the Hong Kong 7s. Thus it was that 18 intrepid players and a sizeable support team found themselves on an overnight flight on Easter Sunday, heading for the bright lights of one of the world’s most vibrant and intense cities. What followed on the rugby pitch was undeniably a chastening experience for the boys in Brown, in what was to prove a tournament of an extraordinarily high level, but it was also a very positive one, seeing us gain valuable experience of the nature and standard of the competition, as well as firmly cementing Sedbergh’s reputation as one of the premier names in schoolboy rugby and an institution which is not afraid to take itself well outside of its comfort zone. It was a significant achievement to muster an OS side of this quality, to get it over to Hong Kong and subsequently to pitch it against some truly world class players. Huge credit must go to tour manager Ben Collins for all of his work in this respect and indeed in organising every aspect of this wonderful tour.
After a 12 hour flight and late afternoon arrival, the Sedbergh squad might have been forgiven for a slow and steady start, but that was far from the case as the players were straight out on the training field on arrival, looking remarkably sharp in an early touch session, despite the high temperatures and humidity. Dan Harrison and Chris Mahon were soon putting the backs through their paces, while Stu Oliver revelled in the opportunity to get two 6’6” monsters, in the form of Dean Schofield and Bob Birtwell, up in the air in the line out.
Backs options looked particularly exciting early on, with an accumulation of 9s and 10s giving Sedbergh plenty of handling and distribution. Tom Barrett and George Drake were fizzing flat passes for fun, unleashing the likes of Nathan Wyman and Tom Wootton out wide, whilst Jordan Annett looked particularly sharp for a schoolmaster in the midfield. Talking of masters, it appeared that Chris Swainson had been given the honour of throwing in at the line out, on the back of an outing at hooker for Wharfedale which commentators had described as ‘not disastrous’.
Backs moves saw the 9 working hard out the back and getting multiple running options up the middle, while forwards were making the breakdown a priority, with the first and second man so crucial to success on a fast, hard pitch. Dan Harrison’s mysterious ‘surprise plays’ were hotly anticipated and didn’t fail to disappoint – the ‘wall’ was a highlight, with many supporters questioning why such a move is generally reserved for the prep school circuit.
Things were looking positive, then, on the eve of the tournament – we genuinely were looking very sharp. The mood at the OS drinks reception in the evening was therefore a buoyant one, with players taking it easy but coaches, supporters and local OSs making the most of the outstanding hospitality which the Cordis hotel, our base for the week, had to offer. What was to follow on the rugby pitch, however, was a serious reality check. We had some serious skill and rugby nous in our side, not to mention a bit of pace out wide in the form of Nathan Wyman and Jack Smales, but we were several leagues below every other team in the tournament in terms of sheer physicality. However well we played, we simply couldn’t win the collisions, which was always going to leave us struggling in terms of making progress up the field. This was certainly the case in our opening game, a baptism of fire against Samurai, a team which was exclusively Fijian and numbered amongst its ranks two Olympic 7s gold medallists. From 1 to 18 their players were big, powerful and athletic. It was a terrifying prospect and a huge credit to our players that they stuck to their task, ultimately going down 42-0. Samurai would go on to win the Bowl (second tier) title, which tells you something about the overall standard of the competition!
After a lengthy – though much needed – break, Sedbergh took to the field once again for the second of their group games, hoping for an easier ride against the Pyrenees side. Whilst the ride couldn’t be said to be much easier, there were more positive moments for Sedbergh, with Jack Smales flying down the wing for a try after good work in the midfield from Tom Barrett and Jordan Annett. James Christie was also given his chance to show the local crowd what he was made of and didn’t disappoint, running hard and standing up in defence. The big men were getting in on the action too, with set piece looking solid, especially the scrum, with Dan Elkington, who looked in great shape after his recent 7s experience, and Captain and talisman Ewan Dowes locking things out in the front row. Whitfield was also proving a useful addition, revelling in the chance to perform in front of his home crowd. Eventually, however, Sedbergh ran out of steam once again, unable to match the French side for sheer ferocity of collisions across the park – 31-7 the final score.
Scottish Exiles were up next, one of several Celtic sides in the tournament and supposedly our easiest opponents. What transpired, however, was actually our biggest reversal – the Exiles were unbelievable at the kick off and we simply couldn’t get our hands on the ball for the whole game! This was an important lesson to learn, and one of the many closed skills in this form of the game at which most of the other teams in the tournament excelled. The top teams were simply breath-taking at times with some of their play. In this context, it was hugely impressive to see the younger generation of OSs, such as Richard Addison, Tom Wootton and Harry Laidler, standing up to be counted, testing their skills and not shirking the physical challenge.
And so, battered, bruised and with many a skin burn from the unforgiving 4G surface, it was a weary side which returned to the hotel on the Wednesday evening. In typically Sedberghian spirit, however, there was also an excitement about the next day’s play and a desire to get out there to prove we could stick with it and show our fighting spirit. Dan Harrison and Ewan Dowes spoke with honesty but also enthusiasm at the team meeting and the players rested up knowing that tomorrow was another chance to wear the brown shirt with pride whilst playing at the highest level.
The sun was shining once again on Thursday – great for the spectators, rather less appealing for the players, who were battling to stay on top of their hydration and keep cool. A Bowl quarter-final match against American side Tigers seemed a tough reward for our efforts of the previous day and tough it was indeed to prove, with the Tigers relentlessly throwing big men up the middle before unleashing some serious pace out wide. Several Sedbergh players were really stepping up, though, despite the adversity. Hayden Thompson-Green was carrying hard and making yards, whilst Dean Schofield’s muscular approach was rewarded with a try after a blast from short range. Phil Whitfield continued his good form of the previous day, whilst fellow Hong Kong resident James Christie was robust once again, as were Chris Swainson and ‘Man-Door’ Bob Birtwell up front. It was also good to see Nathan Wyman getting game time on the wing, having missed the first day’s play due to sickness (which many blamed on Nils Killgren’s (tour physio) choice of food the day before – a recurring theme of the tour).
A loss to the Tigers saw us with one match remaining in the competition, against the Irish Vikings, tournament regulars and past winners. This was the closest team to us in terms of seeding and the scoreline was to reflect this, with Sedbergh losing, but by our narrowest margin. Once again it was a reflection of the overall standard of the tournament that even in this match the power and athleticism of our opponents was incredible; the monstrous, rapid second row who tore us up on more than one occasion would have graced many a decent club 1st XV. In fact, most of the teams in the competition had a large percentage of past and current professional players in their ranks, with several internationals on show. Wendell Sailor was great value throughout for the the Aussie Legends side!
Sedbergh’s tournament was over, then, but the rugby was still flowing, with the tour party able to enjoy the spectacle that is the Hong Kong 7s as a reward for all their efforts. There was a different kind of athleticism on show here and some exceptional rugby being played, but actually in many cases less physicality on display than we had encountered in the 10s. Our trip to the 7s was a fitting end to the tour and it was with a heavy heart (but light wallet) that we headed to the airport straight after Saturday’s 7s action.
Huge thanks are due to those that coordinated the different elements of the trip; to coaches Chris Mahon, Stuart Oliver and Dan Harrison; to the medical team of Justine Mahon and Nils Killgren; to our contacts and players in Hong Kong, especially Phil Whitfield, Oli Pointon and Alejandro Diaz Horstmann. Most of all we reiterate our thanks to tour manager Ben Collins, who put in so much hard work both before and during the tour to make it happen and indeed ensure that it ran so smoothly. His award of an HKFC shirt at our wrap-up meeting was thoroughly well deserved, as were the awards of best forward to Chris Swainson, best back to Jack Smales and best tourist to Jordan Annett. All wore their prize outfits with pride and dignity at the 7s that night.
A massive thank you must also go to our Tour Sponsors: Sonas Commodities (Mark Vickers), The London Steakhouse Company (James Robertson, Evans 88-93), PSI Global (Daniel Hunter, Lupton 84-89), Augentius (Hugh Stacey, Evans 93-98), Lathe and Co Wealth Advisers (Alistair Fullerton, Sedgwick 05-07) Blacklock Jewellery (Chris Blacklock, Powell 89-94), FSS Quality Trust Value (Richard Smailes, School 86-91) Catalyst Capital (Julian Newiss, Winder 66-71) Global Bridge (Ben Mason), Kukri (Chris Marshall) and Philip Baddeley (E 63-68) and John Guthrie (H 50-54). Without the incredible support of all these kind and generous sponsors the trip would simply not have been able to happen. A sincere thanks to all!
All in all this was a brilliant and hugely memorable trip which exposed the Sedbergh brand to 10s rugby of a world class standard – ‘the best 10s in the world’. We hope to be back.
Jonathan Lidiard (E 1995-2000)
Housemaster of Evans House