07 Mar 2019

Bloomberg Hong Kong Scottish and Herbert Smith Freehills HKU will make their Grand Finals debuts on Saturday, (1830 at King’s Park), Scottish in their 8th season in the league and Sandy Bay in their first year.


Scottish’s win over Valley last week ensured the red and black would be absent from the final for a first time in six seasons; Sandy Bay’s toppling of runaway league champions Natixis HKFC capped a comeback season where the new club came from the cellar to clinch a play-off spot, and extend that run to the Grand Final.


The Sports Road scalp was Sandy Bay’s seventh straight, and Scottish coach Craig Hammond is aware of how difficult it is to stop a streaking side:  “They are on a roll, they play expansive footy and score a lot of tries outside with their sevens boys, Seb Brien and the McQueens, and 10 and 15. It will be a tough day at the office with them winning so many on the bounce and so confident but it doesn’t change what we do.”


Adding to Hammond’s concerns are a personal streak of sorts between the sides: “The last two games against them we lost, which doesn’t look the best.”


Those losses, 37-27 last month and 25-24 in January, saw Sandy Bay’s surge come at the expense of a stumbling Scottish, who let slip a comfortable hold on the top of the table late in the season.


“We had a hiccup after Christmas, but I am proud of the way we fought our way back into it and controlled the semi with a good win over a tough Valley side with a point to prove. It’s a good bit of pressure. There is a lot riding on it but we can’t stop doing what we do. We need to function up front - a good set piece and lineout-wise, and play in the right areas of the pitch. Defence and discipline will be key.”


“I don’t think either team will change much, just being smarter in certain areas probably, it’s the mind-set of not going into a shell, but being cautious that if we do make an error they can come right back and score with their counter-attack,” Hammond added.


Scottish will be helped in the physical effort by the return of first-year prop Owen Evans after a lengthy absence, shoring up a pack that already features Hong Kong internationals Dayne Jans, Jack and Mike Parfitt, Jamie Pincott, Kane Boucaut, Kyle Sullivan, Alessandro Nardoni and Adam Fullgrabe. 


In addition to their danger men in the backs, Sandy Bay has plenty of grit up front with No.8 Luke van der Smit and grafting loose forward Matt Lamming both carrying well down the stretch and Dylan Rodgers, Zac Cinnamond and Jack Delaforce driving the engine in the tight five.


“We will do our homework on how to counter them, but finals footy is completely different,” said Hammond.


“It’s all about the little things and making sure we are individually doing our jobs. It’s not a time for big speeches, you are in a grand final for a reason and it’s a great opportunity to see who is the best out of the two and who comes away with the trophy,” Hammond added.


Sandy Bay coach Brett Wilkinson agreed with that take, saying, “Obviously they will be studying us and we will study them, but in essence it is just another game of rugby. We’ll prepare the way we usually do and are working on those key things we need to be on the right side of the result; making sure we tick those boxes we need to, individually and collectively.”


Wilkinson discounted the recent results over Scottish as well, saying, “It doesn’t mean anything because when you get to finals rugby they are tight games and discipline will be a big thing. Scottish are a really good team and a team we respect. They are extremely dangerous and there will be nothing easy in it, we are fully aware of that.”


Given both team’s struggles in the league neither side will take anything for granted.


“It has come together for us now, but we remember that it has taken awhile to get to that point and a lot of hard work as individuals and as a group. We can’t look too far ahead. It is the same for both teams, both have never been in a grand final. This is new to us, and for them, but it is a day we are looking forward to,” said Wilkinson.


“When you can get a couple of wins going there is a bit of confidence within players. Those passes and opportunities we were not finishing before, we’re finishing now, because of that confidence. Our leaders are stepping up and playing good rugby and are confident, which is good for the whole team,” he added.


With two debut sides emerging for the season’s final showdown it will be a notable day for Hong Kong Rugby.


“Neither team has been in the grand final before, which is fantastic for Hong Kong rugby; it is going to be 80 minutes of fireworks,” enthused Hammond.


“It’s exciting for the club, our board, and for all of the players that have left. We have had messages from around the world from guys that started and played for Scottish, it’s brought everyone together, which is great. Our NL1 and ladies teams are also in grand finals. Five teams and three in a grand final is a great achievement for a small club, and I’m really proud of that,” added the Scottish coach.


As a first year club, that impact is also being felt in Sandy Bay, according to Wilkinson, “It is something we can build on for years to come really. We are by no means getting ahead of ourselves, there is still a lot of work we need to do. We have come good in the last few weeks but behind the scenes we are still working hard to make sure we can grow year on year and there is longevity in the plan we are putting in place.


“But it was great to see our mini and youth sections come on the pitch after the Football Club game, congratulating the senior players who are coaching them at Sandy Bay. It was a good feeling and a reward for a lot of the work that has been done already. The mini and youth have brought a new dimension to the club and it feels good to be a part of something bigger and special.”


Both sides will be hoping they have that special feeling come Saturday night.