HKRU Women's Premiership 2021-22 season preview: coaches and captains hungry to return to normality

Team captains and representatives at the HKRU Dettol Women’s Premiership 2021-2022 season launch at Hong Kong Football Club in Causeway Bay in September. Photo: Ike Images

The Dettol Hong Kong Women’s Premiership 2021-22 season kicks off on September 18 after another stop-start campaign last season. Players and coaches are naturally raring to go as organisers and fans hope for a smooth transition as the city works its way to normality.

In what was their first non-intra-club games for many months, the teams shook off some rust at the Valley’s Fast, Femme and Furious preseason event last month – enhanced hygiene protocols and all. Those who tuned into the Hong Kong Rugby Union’s (HKRU) women and girl rugby conference talks with pros will likewise be re-inspired.

All six teams will be returning with new faces to bolster existing squads ahead of a bumper season. For the first time in local women’s rugby, there will be a total of four leagues, the newest addition being the Championship.

New rules will pit the winner of the Championship against the bottom-placed Premiership side in a one-off promotion-relegation match at the end of the season.

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In another exciting twist, the inaugural Premiership Stadium Series to be held at the Hong Kong Stadium from October to November, will double up as an operational trial for the returning Hong Kong Sevens next year.

With the Asia Rugby Women’s Sevens Series in Dubai in November, and the postponed 2021 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand and the Asia Rugby Championship next year, Hong Kong-eligible players will be looking to impress for a national team place.

© Provided by South China Morning Post USRC Tigers Ladies score against Valley Black Ladies in round two of the 2020-21 Women’s Premiership season at King’s Park. Photo: Ike Images

Kroll USRC Tigers

Defending champions Tigers stunned the local women’s scene with their dominant performances last season. With rivals Valley and Gai Wu forever nipping at their heels, it will take some real digging in to stay on top. Winning the Valley preseason tournament final certainly gave them a confidence boost.

Coach Fan Shun-kei: “Hopefully we can retain the league and have a chance to get into the Grand Championships final. That is our key for this year. It will be tough – we need momentum and continuity from game-to-game. We’ve got a good depth of players, but it’s really down to their performances.”

Captain Emily Underwood: “You can definitely expect us to continue (to develop young talent like last season). Working as a coach in the minis and youth sections I see a lot coming through. We’re a really strong community-based club and a lot of hard work goes in on and off the pitch. The passion from our coaches definitely feeds into us and translates into our game.”

© Provided by South China Morning Post Valley Black Ladies player-coach Bella Milo against Tigers Ladies at King’s Park last season. Photo: Ike Images

Societe Generale Valley Black Ladies

Perennial favourites Valley boast several returning core players who are desperate to get back to winning ways. Despite former captain Claudia McMeekin being on maternity leave and leaving a void in the backline, returning Kiwi Olivia Coady provides a timely boost, while former Black Fern Justine Lavea takes up a player-coach role to lead the front pack.

Player-coach Bella Milo: “We had a bit of a tough day at the office against Tigers last year with Covid-19, so we want to build some consistency and confidence. This is going to be a long season with three rounds of playing, so it’s quite exciting to build towards the business end of the season. Just to get to some kind of normality is huge. There is a pretty special vibe for women’s rugby this season, so it will be cool to get off the ground this weekend.”

Captain Jessica Eden: “The Premiership will massively feed into preparation for (the national team qualifiers). Coaches will be watching all the games and we’re excited, especially having not been able to play for such a long time. A big reason why we’re all here is that we were inspired by other women playing rugby, so for us to be role models for the younger girls is hugely important and valuable. Hopefully we can develop more players and build more interest.”

© Provided by South China Morning Post Gai Wu Falcons against Tigers Ladies in round four of the Women’s Premiership last season. Photo: Ike Images

Gai Wu Falcons

Having started the preseason grind much earlier than usual, the ever-dangerous Gai Wu are preparing their return to elite rugby with a bang. A top-half league finish is expected for the Falcons, but they have been sidelined as title contenders in recent seasons with the emergence of the Tigers. This could be a breakout season for top table honours given the added motivation of playing in the National Stadium.

Team representative Abigail Chan Pak-ling: “Our off-season has been really fun. A lot of intensive running and internal games. We want to maintain our standards from last season for this one.

“We’re very excited (to play in Hong Kong Stadium). When we heard we would be playing, we were like ‘finally we get to play on a national-level pitch’. So we really have to put a lot of effort in to play at that national team level.”

© Provided by South China Morning Post HKFC Ice score against Kowloon in round three of the domestic women’s rugby league in 2020. Photo: Ike Images

Natixis HKFC Ice

Football Club will be disappointed not to have nabbed more points from the top sides last season given their impressive performances in previous seasons. However, with several new faces coming in to fortify an already tight-knit group, it may finally be their time to cause a few upsets.

Captain Aileen Ryan: “Without a doubt, it’s going to be the most competitive season we’ve seen. Having not played in so long I think everyone’s really gunning for it. I don’t think there’s anyone that can say they know the outcome week-in week-out – it could go any way – and that’s super exciting.

“This is the first time we’ve seen the turnover from girls coming in and staying for the next season. We’ve got a solid side and we’re hoping to get them all linked up and playing for the same goals.”

© Provided by South China Morning Post Kowloon against HKFC Ice in the Women’s Premiership 2020-21 season at the Hong Kong Football Club. Photo: Ike Images

DAC Kowloon Ladies

Undoubtedly the biggest overachievers from last season, Kowloon are set for another league surprise having shown they can contend with the very best. With three New Zealanders up their sleeve from the tail end of last season, the pieces are falling into place for what could be their most successful season.

Coach Terry Sibanda: “We’ve been working really hard and the team is stronger in terms of mentality and confidence. We’re hoping to bring a few surprises. We played quite well against the big teams at the back end of last year, so a lot of the players have belief and will play for each other and the team. Montana Heslop, our fly-half, is an excellent kicker, ballplayer with excellent vision. We’re looking at her to bring the team forward, so keep an eye on her.”

Co-captain Dodo Chan Hiu-tung: “I’m pretty confident that our team is going to deliver an exceptional performance yet again. When I first joined Kowloon, the team experienced some hardships and challenges, but with years of endeavour and hard work, we’re determined to win as many games as possible. We have so many new and young players, so as captain I have to be mentally and physically fit to guide them.”

© Provided by South China Morning Post SCAA Causeway Bay Phoenix players after a preseason training at King’s Park. Photo: SCAA Causeway Bay Phoenix

SCAA First Pacific Causeway Bay Phoenix

Causeway Bay will need to up their game should they want to avoid the relegation play-off this season, and have planned accordingly having started preseason way back in June. Despite chasing the league’s top teams and holding off challenges from the likes of Kowloon, they remain upbeat with a goal of firmly closing the gap between themselves and the other five teams.

Captain Choco Chan Yan-yi: “We started preseason quite early, in June, and done a lot of gym and preseason training to make ourselves more compatible in this year’s Premiership. We’ve set out a goal to get into the top four and contend with the others.

“Since we could only stay in Hong Kong this year, we tried to do some online fitness sessions and got some preseason games in early. We are really trying to be more competitive at this level.”

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Round one of the new season sees Gai Wu take on Tigers Ladies in Shek Kip Mei, Valley Black Ladies meet HKFC Ice in Happy Valley, and Kowloon Ladies face SCAA Causeway Bay Phoenix in King’s Park.

Matches will be streamed via the HKRU’s YouTube page throughout the season.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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