JUST a year after hanging up his boots, Dragons great Lewis Evans is studying footage of superstars Israel Folau, Malakai Fekitoa, Charles Piutau and Ben Tameifuna as a head coach with a shot at World Cup qualification.

The 35-year-old from Newport will be calling the shots from the stands at the Sunshine Coast Stadium in Australia next Saturday as boss of the Hong Kong national team.

Last weekend they overcame a red card in the opening minute to battle past South Korea 23-21 in Seoul courtesy of a nerveless last-gasp penalty by Gregor McNeish.

That earned a crack at the star-studded Tongans in Australia with the winners progressing to France 2023 where they will lock horns with champions South Africa, Ireland, Scotland and Romania.

It's not all over for the losers, who will enter a round-robin qualification tournament with Kenya, Portugal and either Chile or the United States in November.

It's a rapid rise for Evans, and an unexpected opportunity.

The back row forward retired in May, 2021 to take up a job as director of rugby at USRC Tigers in Hong Kong.

He was initially earmarked to also work with the national under-20s team but was brought into the senior set-up to work as forwards coach under boss Simon Amor.

However, the England sevens great left for a new role with Japan and when general manager James Farndon also left it was a case of in at the deep end for the Rodney Parade favourite.

"It's amazing how it has happened," said Evans. "I was meant to be forwards coach but then the chance presented itself for me to take the lead. I wasn't expecting this but it's a great opportunity for me.”

South Wales Argus: DANGEROUS: Tonga's former All Black Charles Piutau on the run for BristolDANGEROUS: Tonga's former All Black Charles Piutau on the run for Bristol

Tonga’s squad means they would have been favourites even without World Rugby’s change of eligibility rules that means they have been boosted by the former Australia back Folau and All Blacks Piutau and Fekitoa.

Evans said: "Last week I was looking at some of the sevens specialists from Korea, who were very good players, and now we are looking at Israel Folau – it's a serious step up!

"We've been watching the games and when you mention names like Fekitoa, Folau, Piutau, you do think 'oh my god' but what an opportunity.

"They are some of the most famous players in the world but it's an exciting challenge for us as coaches to try and plan for that.

"Our squad is just so excited after a long journey to get to this point and it's almost surreal that we could be in France next year."

While playing, Evans coached Dragons age-grade teams and Newport RFC then became director of rugby at Newport High School Old Boys.

After 15 seasons and 236 games for the Rodney Parade club, the time was right to take the plunge in Hong Kong.

South Wales Argus: Lewis Evans claims the ball above Wales and Lions star Liam Williams for the Dragons against the ScarletsLewis Evans claims the ball above Wales and Lions star Liam Williams for the Dragons against the Scarlets

"It has been an unbelievable experience," he said. "Getting out of my comfort zone 6,000 miles away has been phenomenal and it has certainly developed me.

"I don't think there can be many better places in the world to go as a young coach, it's amazing to get the opportunity to develop as a head coach of a team and also work with like-minded coaches.

"I should have left a few years back. I didn't have any regrets at the time but with hindsight this has made me realise the big rugby world out there to explore.

"This opportunity has been amazing and I am so glad I've been fortunate to experience it."

Hong Kong, who lost to the Dragons A in Ebbw Vale when preparing for the 2019 World Cup qualifying tournament, have had huge challenges in the pandemic.

The governing body's elite rugby programme was canned due to the financial hit – with the loss of the Hong Kong Sevens during Covid being a massive blow – and has led to the national team largely being part-timers.

"It certainly didn't go perfectly in Korea but that was the first time that the guys had played in months," said Evans.

"With all the complications and logistical headaches it's just amazing that we have given ourselves a shot at the World Cup."

Tonga will head for the play-off after finishing their Pacific Nations Cup campaign with a final clash against Australia A following losses to Fiji and Samoa.