16 Dec 2015

The Hong Kong Rugby Union (HKRU) National U19s team survived a scare from Sri Lanka in Round Two of the Asia Rugby U19s championship, winning 24-13 this afternoon, in a game that Hong Kong led by just one point (14-13) with five minutes remaining.

Hong Kong and Sri Lanka were the champions and runners-up in last year’s U19s championship in Colombo and both emerged victorious from Round 1 this year after Hong Kong hammered Chinese Taipei 78-12 and Sri Lanka beat the hosts Singapore 27-12.

In what was effectively the final, barring an upset by the hosts Singapore over Hong Kong in Saturday’s final round, Hong Kong emerged as the clear victors in what was a tightly contested affair, while Sri Lanka proved that their pipeline of pace and talent continues to flow unabated.

Wet conditions today in Singapore left the pitch at Yiu Cho Kang Stadium a morass but likely favoured Hong Kong as the soft turf prevented Sri Lanka from bringing their considerable pace to bear in a match that hung in the balance until the last five minutes.

Hong Kong failed to fire offensively but put in an impressive clinical performance.The effort of the entire team cannot be faulted as Hong Kong withstood several significant periods of pressure from Sri Lanka, while coming up with momentum sapping plays at key times.

Relentless in attack, Sri Lanka put Hong Kong under sustained pressure from the opening whistle and hunkered down in Hong Kong’s half for the opening ten minutes. The fast start was rewarded with an early penalty from in front of the posts but the kick by fullback Thuwan Reeza Raffaideen was off the mark. It would be a telling indicator for Raffaideen, who finished the day just one from five with the boot.

After being let off the hook by Raffaideen, Hong Kong resumed normal service in the middle period of the half. It looked like it would again be the ‘Hugo and Worley’ show for Hong Kong, with flyhalf Hugo Stiles, winger Hugo Chui and centre Matt Worley all figuring prominently in contributing to a 14-8 lead for Hong Kong at the break.

Worley put Hong Kong on the board after finishing a good passage of play by Hong Kong’s back three. Fullback Liam Owens corralled an errant Sri Lankan box kick and quickly put width into the counter-attack with a lovely long pass to winger Chui, who accelerated through the gap before offloading to Worley who finished the last 30 metres to collect his third try of the Championship without being touched.Flyhalf Stiles added the conversion for a 7-0 lead.

Sri Lanka clawed back a penalty shortly thereafter, Raffaideen’s sole successful effort of the day, before Hong Kong’s two Hugos combined for what must be a contender for the try of the tournament.

Hong Kong gained possession off a scrum ten metres out from the Sri Lankan line. Scrumhalf James Christie, who played an excellent sniping game that unsettled Sri Lanka, distributed to Stiles who showed great vision and perfect execution as he unleashed a cross-kick that landed right in the arms of the onrushing Chui, who had done well to slip behind the Sri Lankan defence and showed deft touch to dot down millimetres ahead of the dead ball line. Stiles’ conversion gave Hong Kong a 14-3 lead.

Sri Lanka struck back quickly however as they mounted a second sustained attack on the Hong Kong line finished by impressive No.8 Omalka Gunaratne who crashed over near the posts from the base of the ruck. Raffaideen’s failed conversion in close deflated Sri Lanka’s sails but the Tuskers took the momentum into half-time trailing 14-8.

Sri Lankan spirits were raised further when they started the second half by camping on Hong Kong’s try line for another ten minutes from the kick-off. The Hong Kong forwards were immense in defence as they kept the Lankans off the board in a mini-battle between the two packs, one that Hong Kong clearly won after they blew their opponents off the ball in a scrum with their backs against their try-line.

That passage of play was emblematic of a day when Sri Lanka had the sharper attacking offense but lacked the execution and perhaps the presence of mind to capitalize on it.The remainder of the half was a back and forth affair where Hong Kong’s superior conditioning, discipline and nous steadily came to the fore.

Identifying Gunaratne as Sri Lanka’s prime ball carrying threat Hong Kong’s forwards neutralized the stocky No.8 with some great support tackling, forcing him to spill the ball on one sustained Sri Lankan attack late in the game – another momentum shift for Hong Kong.

Sri Lanka finally found the gap in Hong Kong’s defensive armour when their wing and fullback showed some great pace and support play to score their second try. The kick was missed again leaving Sri Lanka trailing by only one point (14-13) with five minutes remaining.

Undeterred, Hong Kong calmly marched back upfield and turned the tables on the Tuskers by controlling the ball - and the clock - for an extended passage of play deep in Sri Lanka’s half. That pressure was rewarded when the referee gave Hong Kong a penalty try after repeated infringements by the Sri Lankan eight at a five-metre scrum. Stiles converted to give Hong Kong some breathing room at 21-13. Stiles added a late penalty to put Hong Kong in the clear, 24-13. It was Stiles fourth successful kick of the day, giving him nine points and bringing his kicking mark to an almost perfect 15 from 16 for the tournament.

Today’s result extends Hong Kong’s lead at the top of the table in Singapore. Hong Kong has 14 points from two matches with Sri Lanka on eight. Hong Kong will face Singapore in the final round of the Asia Rugby U19s Championship on Saturday at 16.30.