02 Jun 2018

Hong Kong coolly navigated the first hurdle in their bid to qualify for Rugby World Cup 2019 with a comprehensive 39-5 win over South Korea in the finale of the 2018 Asia Rugby Championship (ARC).  It was the seventh straight win for Hong Kong over their closest rivals in Asia.

The win not only sends Hong Kong into a home-and-away series with Oceania qualifiers Cook Islands at the end of June, but marks the first occasion that Hong Kong has lifted the Asia Rugby Championship trophy since the inception of the new format in 2008.

With an away win over Korea in their pockets, Hong Kong entered today’s final in a commanding position on the championship ladder.  

While only needing a losing bonus point to secure their first Asian title, coach Leigh Jones was calling for more from his side.

“Only a win will do,” Jones said ahead of kick-off, and his squad delivered with a complete performance.  Hong Kong had secured the title by half-time after collecting a bonus point for scoring four tries in the opening stanza as the hosts posted 31 points before the break.

Flyhalf Matt Rosslee started the ticker with a penalty in the early stages as both sides settled into the encounter after a scrappy start. While unforced errors continued to plague the visitors, Hong Kong gathered momentum and confidence over a first forty minutes that saw the lion’s share of play in the Korean end.

Rosslee added the opening try in the twelfth minute, after centre Max Woodward folded the midfield defence with a thumping crash ball. Prop Dan Barlow drove the ball to the line in second phase play before setting a perfect platform for the backs with Rosslee diving across the whitewash beneath the posts.  Rosslee’s conversion gave Hong Kong a 10-0 bumper before scrumhalf Liam Slatem widened the margin with the first of a brace of tries on the afternoon.  

Showing great field vision and an instinctual feel for the attack, Slatem took a quick tap and run from a penalty to leave the Korean defence flat-footed and score in the right corner.  Rosslee’s conversion was true as Hong Kong extended its lead to 17-0.

Salom Yiu Kam-shing added to South Korea’s misery moments later after the veteran winger perfectly judged his entry into the backline and accepted a nifty reverse pass to cross over unmolested.  Rosslee maintained his perfect conversion record as Hong Kong pushed the lead to 24-0.

Korean prop Kang Taehyon was sent to the sinbin shortly thereafter for repeated infringements at the breakdown. With the man advantage, Hong Kong looked to have scored its fourth try of the half, but flanker Toby Fenn’s effort was disallowed by the television match official.

Slatem scored his second shortly thereafter, finishing off a beautiful piece of open play by Hong Kong with wing Conor Hartley showing some great hands to reel in a tough pass from Rosslee before slipping the ball to Slatem, who also juggled for control before collecting the ball at pace and darting over near the posts. Rosslee’s conversion was successful and Hong Kong took a 31-0 lead and their first Asian title into the sheds at half-time.  

Hartley and Slatem were standouts in the Championship campaign, finishing as joint top try scorers with four each.

Korea returned to full strength early in the second half but another slow start saw them concede an opening penalty, which Rosslee slotted to push the lead to 34-0.

The Koreans notched their only points of the game off a scrum on Hong Kong’s 5-metre line as captain Lee Yongseung dragged several defenders over the line to avert the shutout. The conversion was unsuccessful and Hong Kong led 34-5.

A second yellow card to Korea further distorted the game, as did a series of injuries and head injury assessments, that contributed to a stop-start second half, with neither side being able to introduce any fluidity in the proceedings.  

Scrumhalf Jamie Lauder eventually capped a fecund day for the home side with his try to close out the proceedings. Despite a largely forgettable second half, Hong Kong will take momentum from a near pristine opening act as they prepare for the Cook Islands in four weeks time.

“I think it was probably the most clinical first half I have seen in a very long time. Everything we did on the training field just turned up on the pitch and we went into half-time knowing the job was pretty much done,” said Jones.

“It was an outstanding performance and it speaks volumes about the attitude and preparations of the players and coaching staff this week,” Jones added.

Celebrations for a first Asian title will be short-lived as Hong Kong prepare to front up for the Cook Islands.

“First of all the guys will have a week off as it has been a tough old campaign,” said Jones.

“We are a bit in the dark with the Cook Islands. We know very little about them, so we are going to have do our research now to see how to prepare for them,” he added.

The month-long layoff before the next game will also help Hong Kong get some of its wider squad fit as well.

“We had almost another full team sat in the stand who were injured today and hopefully another eight or ten of them will be ready for selection for the Cook Islands,” Jones noted.

“Today we were down to the last man standing almost behind the scrum, so it will be nice to have a few selection headaches for the Cooks,” he added.