13 Nov 2015

Top seeds Russia and Hong Kong emerged victorious after the first round of the inaugural Hong Kong Rugby Union Cup of Nations. Russia beat Portugal 23-12 in the opener; while Hong Kong collected the only bonus point win of round one, beating Zimbabwe 30-11 in the late match at Hong Kong Football Club.

It was a nervy start in the European derby today as Russia and Portugal could both only muster 12 points combined after the first half, as both teams struggled in the squally rains that opened the match with handling the first casualty.

Portugal had the more composed start pushing ahead to a 6-0 lead after two successful strikes from fly half Manuel Costa. Russia had its own chances early, with its first kickable penalty coming in just the second minute. Winger Andrey Otrokov had a disastrous outing with the boot, missing the first two penalty opportunities – both of which were from in close.

In the 34th minute, Russia was awarded another kickable penalty and this time fly half Sergey Yanyushkin took over the kicking duties, potting two late goals to level the scores as the two sides returned to the changing rooms. Yanyushkin stepped in ably after Russia’s first choice flyhalves were unavailable this week, staying back in Siberia to play for Enisei-STM versus Connacht in the European Cup Championships.

Portugal were clearly superior in the set piece in the first half and looked to be in good position going into the break, but it was the Russians who made the necessary adjustments at the break.

In the first ten minutes after half time, Portugal extended its lead to 12-6 with two early penalties, both converted by Costa. But Russia fought back well, steadily chipping away at Portugal’s advantage at the scrum and lineout and gaining increasing confidence and territory with their rush attacks through the centres.

Russia captain Vasily Artemyev, playing at fullback, wrested the game away, scoring the first try of the match in the 60th minute. Yanyushkin’s conversion gave Russia its first lead at 13-12. The backline produced Russia’s second try moments later when centre Igor Galinovsky crossed over. Yanyushkin’s conversion brought the score to 20-12 and he added a final penalty in the 77th minute to put Russia in the clear 23-12.

“We’re delighted with the result,” said Artemyev. “The conditions were tough and not something that we are used to playing in, it was wet and humid. Difficult to breathe and difficult to control the ball, especially in the first half and both teams made a lot of mistakes.”

“I think we pressed too much early on and we had too many errors in the first thirty minutes. We were playing too much in midfield instead of trying to pen Portugal in their zone. But we were able to settle in after halftime and I think we took control in the last third of the game. The most positive thing was that we didn’t concede any tries versus their strong pack,” concluded the captain.

Hong Kong started hot from the hooter versus Zimbabwe, jumping out to a 20-0 lead with three first half tries. Fly half Ben Rimene accounted for Hong Kong’s first points of the day with a successful penalty three minutes in, followed by a try in the eight minute from scrumhalf Tom Marshall who had a strong debut for Hong Kong tonight. Marshall was one of eight new caps blooded by Hong Kong this evening. Rimene’s conversion hit the posts but Hong Kong had an 8-0 cushion after a frenetic first ten minutes.

Hong Kong kept the pressure squarely on the visitors, keeping the ball in hand and in play for multiple phases before putting winger Charles Higson-Smith over in heavy traffic to push ahead to 13-0 after the conversion was wide.

Five minutes later, Hong Kong’s pressure told again, as Zimbabwe conceded a penalty try on their five-metre line for intentionally kicking the ball out of the scrum. Rimene’s conversion gave Hong Kong what looked like a comfortable lead at 20-0 approaching the break.

With the bonus point win in sight, Hong Kong seemed to lose the plot, conceding two yellow cards on either side of the break. The first against new cap and flanker James Cunningham in the 38th minute and the second to Hong Kong’s other flank Matt Lamming in the 48th minute.

Gifted the numerical advantage, it was Zimbabwe who started best after the interval, putting Hong Kong under real pressure with 11 unanswered points in the second stanza. Fly half and vice captain Tichifara Makwanya opened the scoring early on in the second with a penalty, slotting a second after Lamming was sent to the bin to close the deficit to 20-6.

Zimbabwe threatened to bring the gap to within a converted try in the 63rd minute when reserve back Sanele Sibanda crossed over for his side’s first ever fifteen-aside try in Hong Kong, but Mkwanya’s conversion was off the mark, leaving Hong Kong with a 20-11 edge entering the final quarter.

Reserve fly half Niall Rowark, playing on his home ground at Hong Kong Football Club, helped steady the ship for Hong Kong, notching a late penalty in the 74th minute to push the hosts out to 23-11.

Late in the match it looked as if Hong Kong would settle for a less than convincing win to close out the game when another new cap, winger Brad Raper, capped off an adventurous period of play to score the bonus point try in the 78th minute, with Rowark’s final conversion giving Hong Kong a 30-11 win.

“The win was great but we lost control in the last 10 minutes of the first half and for the majority of the second,” said Hong Kong coach Andrew Hall.

“When the game went loose Zimbabwe really looked dangerous but when we kept our structure like in the first 30 minutes, we created a lot of chances which was a positive. Credit to the players, their constant plugging away in the second half made a difference in the end. There was belief in what we were doing on the pitch, but we all know that there’s plenty to work on yet.”

Coach Hall was pleased with the contributions of the new caps: “I’m really pleased for them. I said in the huddle after the match that a bonus point win on their international debut is a great start. Everyone did themselves justice and we’re really pleased with exposing another group of players to international rugby,” concluded Hall.

Hong Kong now go to the top of the table on 5 points after the win, followed by Russia on four points with Portugal and Zimbabwe yet to record a point. Hong Kong will take on Portugal while Russia will play Zimbabwe in round two on Tuesday, 17 November at Hong Kong Football Club.