29 Sep 2015

The Hong Kong Rugby Union's Men's Sevens lost a gripping cup semi final to Japan 24-19 in extra time at the Asia Rugby Sevens Series' Thailand Sevens in Bangkok, but bounced back from the gutting loss to claim third place overall.

Hong Kong's 33-7 win over Sri Lanka in the third place playoff leaves them tied-fourth on the Series table with one event remaining next month in Sri Lanka. Hong Kong and Sir Lanka are both on 18 points after two Series events, with Japan, South Korea and China ahead of them on 24, 21 and 19 points respectively.

As expected, Hong Kong were untroubled by Malaysia in the morning's cup quarterfinal, winning 33-0 to book their place in the semis. It was the first time this season that Hong Kong has faced Japan after last meeting them in the final of the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea last October.

Typically for these two sides who have been the class of Asian Sevens for years it was a gripping encounter, and ultimately proved more entertaining than the cup final, which Japan won handily over South Korea 45-7, keeping their stranglehold on the season intact.

Despite the 37 degree conditions in Bangkok, the semifinal was an end-to-end affair - a testament to the fact that these two teams are the most superbly conditioned sides on the Series. In the semifinal, Japan took the lead from the kick-off, methodically working speedster Teruya Goto into space for his sixth try of the tournament and jumping ahead 7-0 after captain Katsuyuki Sakai's conversion.

The next five minutes were sapping for both sides with some highly physical contests at the breakdown. Hong Kong - playing with a shallower bench after Ben Rimene was sidelined with a back injury before the tournament started, were left relying on their starting seven for nearly the entirety of regulation play - a fact that would haunt them in extra-time.

But Hong Kong were rewarded early on for their grit with a try in the sixth minute after a series of sniping runs from Jamie Hood backed up Japan to its try line. Hong Kong outmuscled Japan in some frenzied rucking, forcing Japan to concede the penalty. Alex McQueen took the quick tap and run but was brought down at the try-line, only for Michael Coverdale to collect the ball and crash over from in close. The ensuing conversion by Hood was off target but Hong Kong narrowed the gap to 5-7.

With less than a minute left in the half, Japan collected the ball from the restart as time expired. Neglecting to kick for touch and bring on the interval, Japan instead went looking for the momentum-swinging try but lost composure in the face of the Hong Kong defence, fumbling away the ball in their own half.

McQueen was again on the spot and showed great vision with a perfectly weighted chip kick that saw the ball pop up in front of Japan's posts. Hood crashed into the fray and collected the ball well, driving deeper towards the try-line before he was held up, ceding possession to Japan. Before Japan could clear its line, captain Max Woodward barreled in to take the defender and ball at the same time, dislodging the pill and touching down to give Hong Kong its first lead, 12-7.

It was a great reward for Woodward, who was ever-present throughout the weekend and especially versus Japan, but not all of his teammates would withstand the heat and pace. With the match teetering on a knife edge, coach Gareth Baber sent his starting seven back on for the second half to try to extend the lead.

Japan meanwhile had the luxury of bringing on one of its most experienced campaigners in Jamie Henry. He immediately found space from the kick-off and marched the ball 50 metres upfield. A try-saving tackle from Rowan Varty was not enough to keep Japan off the score sheet as Japan's superior numbers in attack put towering forward Lote Tuqiri into space out wide. Tuqiri shrugged off a last gasp tackle from Salom Yiu to even the score at 12-all.

Hong Kong controlled the ball off the re-start and marched deep into Japan's territory. Yiu spotted a gap but was pulled up just short of the line. Some frantic defence ensued and Japan were again penalized for not releasing in the tackle. But the expected yellow card stayed in the referee's pocket and Japan were let off the hook with a warning.

Hood backed himself from the penalty, finding the smallest of gaps in the defence to crash over from five metres out, giving Hong Kong the lead again at 19-12 after Hood's conversion. Backed into a corner, Japan threw everything at Hong Kong in the waning minutes. Henry eventually forced the overlap in the defence to stream upfield. He had too much gas for the chase from Coverdale - still on the pitch from the starting whistle - and eventually offloaded to Goto for his second try. The conversion was good, leveling the score at 19-all and sending the match into extra time.

Japan's fresh legs proved too much for Hong Kong in the extra period with Henry steam-rolling Lee Ka To to unleash the final attack. Hong Kong's defence was again forced into scramble mode but couldn't stem the bleeding as Japan capitalized on acres of space to cross over in the 16th minute to win 24-19.

Despite the inspirational efforts from Woodward, Varty and Hood in particular on the weekend, Japan's bench firepower would prove the ultimate difference, leaving Hong Kong ruing the absence of its own difference makers in Mark Wright, Lee Jones, Kwok Ka Chun, Tsang Hing Hung and Tom McQueen who are out for the early part of the season with injury.

Despite the gutting loss to Japan, Hong Kong bounced back superbly to put Sri Lanka away 33-7 to claim bronze. Japan held off South Korea to claim its second consecutive tournament win. China backed up its surprising efforts from the opening tournament in Qingdao to beat UAE for the Plate, while hosts Thailand edged Philippines to claim the bowl. Asia Rugby Sevens Series action will resume again in two weeks in the Sri Lanka Sevens in Colombo.

Hong Kong Men's Sevens Squad (Thailand Sevens):
Max WOODWARD (captain); Christopher MAIZE; LEE Ka To, Cado; Michael COVERDALE; Nicholas HEWSON; Calvin HUNTER; Tyler SPITZ; Alex MCQUEEN; Jamie HOOD; Rowan VARTY; YIU Kam Shing, Salom; Ben RIMENE