18 Jan 2020

Natixis HKFC are back-to-back Saxo Markets Premiership champions after toppling Societe Generale Valley, 15-10, in a classic arm wrestle today at Happy Valley.


The only try of the game came in the 78th minute when fullback Whiria Meltzer gave Valley a glimmer of hope in a game they trailed from the outset, pulling the score to within a converted try of a memorable comeback win with seconds left on the clock.


But Club’s defence stood up to the final test as they had done throughout the contest, blunting over a dozen Valley attacks on their try line with a stirring defensive stand that kept Valley from squeaking out a dramatic win in added time.


It was a fitting result after Club turned in a performance for the ages, surprisingly subduing Valley from the outset, while setting markers with several thumping tackles of their own.


With the league title at stake, it was a cagey performance from both sides early on, with neither team taking risks, opting to err on the side of caution in a bid to capture the silverware.


With nothing separating the teams from a skill or depth level, discipline was a key factor in a first half that yielded three penalties - all to Club, who accounted for half to lead 9-0 at half-time.


Club’s defence was pristine for the first 78 minutes, while the accurate boot of fly half Glyn Hughes, who struck five from eight penalties to produce all of his side’s points, helped keep the defending champions’ ahead of their opponents.


Wingers Fionn Carr and Eremia Tapsell looked dangerous on either side of half time, but Valley always managed to find the last available defender to prevent any five-pointers. For its part, Valley struggled to put men into attacking space this afternoon, and on the few occasions they did, they were undone by unforced errors or poor decision-making.


Valley winger Kevin Field missed two penalty chances in the first half, his first in the second minute sailing just wide, while a more speculative chance from halfway at the end of the half elicited groans from coach Andrew Kelly who wanted ball kept in hand.


A superlative effort from centres Tom Hill and Ben Axten-Burrett and back rowers Hugh McCormick-Houton, Thomas Stanley and Sam Pim, minimised the impact of Valley’s potent centres Mitchell Purvis and Peni Latu and prevented the red and black machine from firing.


Despite the 9-0 lead, Club would have been hoping for more on the scoreboard to start the second half, considering their significant first half advantage in possession and territory.


Valley fans, meanwhile, were left musing an uncharacteristically quiet performance from their heroes, who have been the stalking horses to Club all season long. Home fans were left disappointed outside of a brief early charge that produced Field’s first score as he closed the gap to 9-3 shortly after the start of the half.

Valley couldn’t build on that momentum as inaccuracy and unforced errors spoiled the few attacks they mustered in a third quarter where Club grew in self-belief.  


A prime scoring chance in the 47th minute was somehow turned over by scrumhalf Jamie Lauder who emerged with the pill from the Valley maul on his own 22-metres, before pushing the attack deep into Valley’s half where Club earned another kickable penalty. Hughes made sure on his fourth of seven to push the lead to 12-3. He then grew that lead to 15-3 with five minutes left when Valley fly half Liam Owens was yellow carded for infringement after hampering a late odd-man rush from Club.


With minutes remaining and Club camped on the Valley try-line, it looked as if Club would run out easy winners and score the try they so richly deserved to that point. But Meltzer read the final pass perfectly to intercept and flash home for a 90-metre score of his own that put Valley right back into the thick of it, trailing 15-10 after Field’s conversion.  


Valley regained possession and drove deep to set up an entertaining final five minutes of wave attacks on Club’s line in front of the Valley supporters stand, but ultimately came up with nothing from the final frenzy as time expired.  The final 15-10 score made life interesting but flattered Valley as Club comprehensively outplayed their opponents, taking an important psychological edge into the grand championship play-offs.


HKFC coach Jack Wiggins, enjoying a second league title in his second season at Sports Road, was proud of the effort that put his side back in the champions seat, saying, “We controlled territory and possession well in the first half. We didn’t over play and took the points when they were on offer.


“We knew it would be tight and I was happy with our approach at the end. We could have gotten in under the sticks for seven points, but the momentum changes and suddenly we are down to the wire. The character we showed at the end to hold them off and come away with the win was huge.”


Wiggins believes this year’s team is even stronger than last year’s, but knows there is still work to do to confirm that status.


“It is always a challenge to repeat. We made our mark in the first year, but I think we are a better team now than last year. We proved that over a 10-game season we are the best team, but now it is knockout rugby.


“Last year we fell short in the semi finals. We were hurting bad after that. Our goal this year has been to win everything on offer. We now have two of the top trophies [Ed note: the Premiership Challenge and League trophies] but the third, [Ed: the grand  championship] is the one we want.


“That is the most difficult to win, because it is a one-off game and you have to be on it. We are in a good place and hopefully we can prepare well over the next two weeks and hit the ground running,” he added.


Club will face off with Herbert Smith Freehills HKU Sandy Bay, who lost to Bloomberg HK Scottish this afternoon 25-17 to finish in the fourth and final play-off spot.  Valley will meet Scottish when the play-offs begin on 1 February.