24 Nov 2018

After dozens of matches and thousands of kilometres travelled, Hong Kong’s road to Rugby World Cup 2019 ended in a 27-10 loss last night to Canada. 

Canada will become the 20th team at next year’s world championship, continuing their tradition of qualifying for every Rugby World Cup since the first in 1987.  Germany’s bonus point win over Kenya, 43-6, in last night’s other match sees Hong Kong finish third overall in the repechage in Marseille.

DTH van der Merwe accounted for tries in each half as Canada pushed a 14-2 lead at half-time into the final 27-10 win over Hong Kong at a wet Jean Delort stadium.

Needing a win and to score four tries, Hong Kong were relentless across the opening 40 minutes, but a disciplined Canadian outfit had the nous to hold them off.  Conditions also conspired against Hong Kong with the first heavy rains of the tournament making the hoped for attacking rugby a challenge.

Hong Kong also lost core centre Tyler Spitz, who had started every game of the repechage, to a hamstring strain early on in the match with Max Woodward coming in off the bench after three minutes of play.

An energetic start saw Hong Kong dominate the early stages, and drive the Canadian pack off the ball in the first scrum, as they forced the Canadians on to the backfoot and into conceding numerous penalties. Needing tries, Hong Kong gave up early opportunities to kick for posts, even when beneath the sticks, as they opted for scrums and attacking line-outs early on. 

Canada grew on each successful defence and twinned that belief with some strong ball-handling as they worked hooker Ray Barkwill over for the opening try in the 18th minute to strike out to a 7-0 lead after the conversion.

Hong Kong looked to have replied well when scrumhalf Liam Slatem, one of the side’s most dangerous threats in France, crossed over the line, but the try was called back by the TMO for an earlier knock-on.

Hong Kong would settle for a single penalty in the first half from fly-half Matt Rosslee after 30 minutes to shave Canada’s lead to 7-3. 

Ahead of the match, Hong Kong were hoping to be in striking range late in the game and as half-time approached they looked largely on track.  But disaster struck moments later when a Rosslee clearance kick was beautifully charged down by van der Merwe, who corralled the deflection for his fourth try of the tournament, extending Canada’s lead to 14-3 at the break.

Hong Kong had a glimmer of hope after Gordon McRorie was yellow carded to end the first half, triggering a frantic assault on the Canadian line, but to no avail.  With a man advantage to start the second stanza, coach Leigh Jones kept most of his starting group on the park early on but Hong Kong failed to capitalise on their numerical superiority.

Slatem had a second scoring chance foiled shortly after the kick off of the second half, but Hong Kong finally found pay-dirt in the 53rd minute when winger Conor Hartley scored in the corner to shave Canada’s lead to 14-10 after Rosslee’s conversion.

With the match in the balance, the next 20 minutes proved pivotal – and broke for Canada – as they added two penalties in the 61st and 67th minutes to give themselves breathing room up 20-10 with 20 minutes remaining.

That lead grew futher when Van der Merwe scored his second try of the match, shrugging off some poor Hong Kong tackling to score.  The successful conversion brought the score to the final 27-10 and sent Hong Kong home to lick their wounds for another cycle.

Hong Kong captain James Cunningham shared his disappointment post-match, saying, “It was a bit frustrating for us. Once again, like against Germany, we had opportunities but we just couldn't take them and Canada did.”

While a wider de-brief remains after returning to Hong Kong, Dai Rees, Chief Rugby Officer at the HKRU, reflected on the campaign last night saying, “There was a lot of emotion in the locker room, afterwards and some anger frankly, as the guys felt they let themselves down.

“We played very, very well against Canada but, similarly to Germany, we weren’t able to finish our opportunities. We had 75% of the possession in the first half and created more chances, but we couldn’t capitalise. We may have been pressing a bit too much considering we were chasing the bonus point.

“It’s been a long journey, but now it’s over, and our World Cup dream is over. Now we have to move on to the next phase but we are in a much better place now having played at this level. We need to focus on why we lost those games against Canada and Germany over the next cycle so we come back stronger.

“Our ability to handle the intensity of games like this needs improving and that can only come from getting more competition, and we also need to focus now on growing our playing base.

“We have really raised the quality of our test players, but now we have to improve the quantity and that starts with retaining more and more of our young players in Hong Kong at the start of their professional careers.

“Five years ago, with an elite playing pool of less than 100 players, we could never have imagined we would be here competing against Canada with a chance to reach a Rugby World Cup. Now we’ve been here - done that, and shown what we are capable of. The work to get back here starts again now,” Rees added.

Editor’s Notes:

Hong Kong squad v Canada

RWC 2019 Repechage, Marseille, 23 November

1. Dan BARLOW, 2. Dayne JANS, 3. Grant KEMP, 4. Craig LODGE, 5. Finlay FIELD, 6. James CUNNINGHAM ©, 7. Toby FENN, 8. Thomas LAMBOLEY, 9. Liam SLATEM, 10. Matt ROSSLEE, 11. Conor HARTLEY 12. Ben AXTEN-BURRETT 13. Tyler SPITZ, 14. YIU Kam-Shing, Salom 15. Casey STONE. 16. Alexander POST, 17. Ben HIGGINS, 18. Jack PARFITT, 19. Michael PARFITT, 20. Nick HEWSON, 21. Jamie LAUDER 22. Jamie HOOD, 23. Max WOODWARD