16 Dec 2018

Stung by an opening round loss to South Korea in the Asia Rugby U19s championship, Hong Kong responded well in beating Sri Lanka 48-15 last night in Taiwan. Chinese Taipei beat Korea, 7-5, to keep things wide open ahead of the final round on Tuesday, 18 December.

Chinese Taipei top the table with eight points from two wins; Hong Kong’s bonus point win last night puts them in second place on six points - one ahead of Korea, while Sri Lanka have one point.

Hong Kong, five-time champions at this level and needing a sixth title to earn an invite to the World Rugby U20 Trophy - turned in a disciplined and patient effort, running rampant with seven tries.

Well aware of the amount of work they left themselves after losing to Korea, Hong Kong were on attack from the first minute, opting to kick for the deep line-out - one of the team’s best weapons - from several early penalty opportunities.

That aggressiveness paid off with Hong Kong’s pack dominating after being outmuscled by Korea. Hooker Callum Tam led from the front with a brace of tries, scoring in either half, while three other forwards figured on the score sheet - Rory Cinnamond, who scored his first try for Hong Kong at National Age Grade level, No.8 Hugo Christopher and Toby Jurecka.  Full-back Paul Altier added a try, five conversions and a penalty, in a complete performance that was missing in the opener from one of the squad’s most experienced players.

Hong Kong led 19-3 after 20 minutes with the first try from Jack Abbott in the fifth minute.  Altier was off on the conversion but made amends minutes later when converting Christopher’s 13th minute score.  

Shortly thereafter Sri Lanka’s prop was sent to the sin-bin. Tam was the immediate beneficiary scoring his first in the 18th minute. Altier’s conversion was true and Hong Kong extended its lead to 19-3 after conceding a penalty in the early stages.  Showing their pace and unpredictability the Tuskers claimed a short-handed try, with the conversion narrowing the gap to 19-10 as they returned to full strength.

Hong Kong debutant Joseph Knight was then sent to the bin, marring an otherwise solid performance. The defence was up to the task, holding Sri Lanka off the scoreboard throughout their man advantage. Altier added his penalty before half-time to edge Hong Kong further ahead, 22-10. 

Leaving nothing to chance, Hong Kong dismantled Sri Lanka after the re-start, scoring thrice in ten minutes with Tam opening with a 43rd minute try, followed by blitzing efforts from Jurecka in the 47th minute and Altier in the 49th, as the lead ballooned to 41-10.  Cinnamond’s try pushed Hong Kong to 48 after Altier’s conversion, while Sri Lanka scored a consolation try to bring the final score to 48-15.

Coach Stephen Dowse was pleased with the effort, saying, “We controlled the game much better and were more physical, getting that front foot ball and making some positive carries. It was nothing different, honestly, to how we should have played against Korea.”

Dowse knows that his squad still has heavy lifting to do against the hosts, who attracted over 1,000 fans to watch them on Saturday night.

“Taipei are the surprise package of the tournament. At this level, every time a team gets some confidence and gets their heads up they are a threat. They hold the ball well and play at high tempo, when they are playing well they are hard to beat.

“We must start well and build the score methodically. If we can get the mental side of the game and our accuracy right then we will again be in a good place. It’s going to take a whole squad effort, with probably six or seven changes needed to cover injuries, and our focus is only on what we can control as a team and as a playing group.”

The win leaves Hong Kong in striking distance of a sixth title in a competition that can still be won by any of the top three teams. Hong Kong must beat Chinese Taipei and secure a bonus point, while keeping the hosts out of the bonus; a bonus point win for Korea over Sri Lanka, eminently possible based on form, would lift them back into contention on eight points.

“We’ve taken back control of our own destiny a bit. We still need to take maximum points and everything is still very much up for grabs, but we can only control our own response. It all comes down to us and what we can do and control, but we want to take it out of everyone else’s hands now.

“There was a lot resting on the Sri Lanka result and the players knew and accepted that and took ownership of their performance. We’ve talked a lot about this not being about individuals but about the opportunities we create for the programme, like qualifying for the U20 Trophy. We need to create those opportunities, not just for ourselves, but for the programme and the guys behind us as well,” he added.