Under-16 girls playing rugby in Hong Kong at the 2019 New Year's Day tournament
The New Year’s Day tournament is an all-star event for Hong Kong’s top players

How does a middle-aged, decidedly un-sporty man become the unofficial photographer for a girls rugby team in Hong Kong?

The story begins in Ottawa, when—like most Canadian males of my generation—I played amateur hockey.

A social leveler

In the early 1970s, hockey was a social leveler. The teacher’s kid played alongside the tycoon’s son (there were no girls teams). Talent topped wealth or social status. Coaches were volunteers and the local gas station sponsored the uniforms. At dawn on Saturdays and Sundays, parents chauffeured their sons across the city, or to a neighboring province, in search of ice time. Sound asleep in the back of the family car, boys dreamed of careers in the National Hockey League.

A little girl is chased by boys on a rugby pitch
Girls and boys play on mixed rugby teams until they reach 12 years of age

Fast-forward to Hong Kong in the 2010s. I’m now a father of three. Our eldest child played some rugby, but eventually found other interests. His two sisters, however, embraced the game with a passion.

Friends and fitness

I was delighted the girls found rugby, and the HKU Sandy Bay club, where they learned about sportsmanship, kept fit and made friends. Rugby was a welcome break from the pressures of school and the temptations of the internet. There was an active social scene for both players and their parents, and volunteers had preferential treatment when applying for coveted Rugby Sevens tickets.

From September through March, our free time was devoted to rugby. The girls practiced during the week, and over a typical weekend we would attend two or even three matches at pitches throughout the city.

The inclusiveness, sisterhood and quintessential team spirit that I experienced in rugby, I just didn’t feel in anything else.”

—Tanya Dhar
Head Coach, Under-14 Girls
HKU Sandy Bay RFU

Meanwhile, I noticed similarities between the rugby community and the hockey league of my youth. The youngest kids continue to play in the earliest time slots. CEOs and teachers’ kids are teammates. Local businesses still sponsor the uniforms. And like the hockey teams, volunteers are everywhere.

While parents look on, a girl is tackled at a rugby tournament in Hong Kong
Many parents are involved in girls rugby as fans and volunteers

But there were differences. Some parents had played rugby professionally, while others shared my obliviousness to the game’s finer points. Players and their families ran the gamut, from locals and long-term expats to newcomers.

Inspiration strikes

One weekend, inspiration struck. I took my Nikon DSLR to a match and began shooting. Predictably, most of the images were mediocre. But one or two had promise. Encouraged, I repeated the process at subsequent matches. I learned to use editing software to crop and fine-tune the images. A new camera body and a longer zoom lens helped me cover more of the pitch. I stopped shooting JPG and began using RAW, for greater creative control. Slowly, the number of passable photos increased.

Time on the sidelines passed more quickly. After a half-day tournament, I’d return with 300 images. It became clear that I’d either edit the photos that day, or procrastination and Hong Kong’s hectic pace would win out, and the images would gather dust. Out of necessity, the speed and decisiveness of the editing process increased.

Girls rugby has been an ideal photographic subject. The sport is physical, dramatic and dynamic, which makes for inherently interesting images. Regular matches in a predictable environment let me apply last week’s lessons to next week’s match. And flying hair adds a visual element that’s usually missing from boys rugby.

Sharing the fun

Sharing photos with players and parents added a social dimension to my hobby. Through Facebook and an online photo gallery, grandparents outside Hong Kong became fans of my work. Other photographer parents—including Antony, Henry and Susanna—cheerfully shared their images, enthusiasm and sometimes equipment. I contributed photos for magazine articles, calendars and slide shows at end-of-season parties.

Hong Kong girls playing rugby at a tournament in Singapore in 2018
Overseas tournaments, like this one in Singapore, are a much-anticipated part of the season

Ultimately, what began as a distraction for our kids became an opportunity to volunteer, a new group of friends and better photographic skills. And like my other passion, underwater photography, sports is one of the few subjects where mobile phones simply cannot compete with cameras.

Girls rugby in Hong Kong

Protests against the Hong Kong government’s extradition bill and the COVID-19 outbreak disrupted the 2019/20 season, but girls rugby remains popular in Hong Kong. More than 600 girls—or about 30% of the youth rugby population—play seven- or 15-aside rugby for 13 school and club teams throughout the city.

Girls and boys play on mixed teams until they reach age 12. There are girls-only squads for players, under 14, under 16 and under 19. A New Year’s Day tournament showcases the best players from each age group, and Hong Kong teams join tournaments in Singapore, Japan and other locations.

Hong Kong also hosts an annual all-girls tournament that attracts teams from across Asia for a weekend of spirited competition.

This story first appeared in the April 2020 edition of The Correspondent, the official publication of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong.

More rugby images can be found at www.christopherdillon.com.

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