07 Feb 2020

Societe Generale Valley are all that stands in the way of Saxo Markets Premiership champions Natixis HKFC capturing the treble at Kings Park in tomorrow’s Saxo Markets Grand Championship final at 17.00.


Fittingly the last two clubs standing, HKFC and Valley have dominated the Premiership Challenge Trophy, the 10-round Premiership title sprint and now the grand championships. But HKFC have been first past the post in each of the first two contests and tomorrow’s Grand Final marks Valley’s last chance to sneak a result over their historic rivals.


Their two meetings this year have been thrillers, with HKFC claiming the Premiership title on the final meeting of the season, 15-10 - with Valley held up on Club’s try-line in extra time. The other bout between the heavyweights was equally close, a 16-6 Valley loss in November.


Valley are also out to exorcise some other demons from last season, notably a rare barren trophy case when the juggernaut’s six-in-a-row grand final winning streak was snapped. The perennial champions will also be eager to farewell talismanic coach Andrew ‘Ned’ Kelly as he marks his last time at the reins before returning to Scotland to coach Heriot’s.


The former Scotland age grade hooker’s arrival helped fuel the club’s six straight grand final wins from 2012 to 2017. Kelly captained the squad in his debut campaign, leading the team to the double. His gritty presence at hooker provided edge to the repeat grand final win the following campaign, while year three saw another as player-coach, assisting Jack Isaac, before Kelly added three more from his first seasons as head coach.


For Valley General Manager Nick Hewson, teammate of Kelly and one of Hong Kong’s most capped internationals in his own right, that high-powered resume says it all.


“Certainly he has to be up there amongst Hong Kong’s most successful club coaches ever.


“Ned has been fantastic for us from the day he arrived, whether being named captain in his first season, winning two grand championships as a player, and another as an assistant under Jack Isaac and three more as head coach, he has done it all. In his first season we won the double, and from day one he has earned and held the respect of the entire team.”


That universal respect will mean Valley has added motivation to close the campaign on a win.


“Emotions will be high,” Hewson agreed; “They always are in a grand final, but the guys will want to perform for Ned one last time. It would be good to send him off with the win and even nicer if it can be over the neighbours [ed: HKFC].”


For his part, the self-effacing Kelly denied his departure would add any motivation or emotion to the encounter and insisted that his and the team’s focus was keeping to the task at hand, which is considerable. When asked if he considered the historic derby between Valley and HKFC a fitting way to end his Hong Kong run, Kelly allowed himself to be drawn out.


“You have to keep your emotions in check a wee bit at a time like this. Absolutely, it would be a fantastic way to go out with a win, but Football Club have beaten us twice this year already. We know it will be a very, very tough day out, but we are well prepared for it and ready to go.”


Kelly can draw on his and his team’s deep well of experience in the pressure games as a possible edge against a Club side that is as imposing as last season’s league winners but were also upended in the play-offs last February.


“It's a final, and finals are very different from league games. It will come down to the wire, with possibly a few penalties making the difference. Discipline will be a big factor and taking the opportunities when you get them, knowing full well that there will not be many,” Kelly added.


Kelly has also had an impact on the Hong Kong set-up during his time here, having been a key member of the national team’s specialist coaching staff with the cagey front-rower sharing his experience from over 150 caps at Edinburgh in the front row.


In looking back on his time in Hong Kong, he remains encouraged by what he has seen in the local game.


“Since I arrived here eight years ago - and the standard was very good then, mind you, it has gone up, up and up every season. The turning point I think was the institution of the ERP programme, which really had an impact on the whole league with amateur players having to lift their game in response. I think Hong Kong are now very well positioned to pushing for that Rugby World Cup place.”


“For me, my wife and I have been grateful to call Hong Kong our home for the last eight years. We are really sad to be leaving, but also very excited and looking forward to stepping into a new challenge,” added Kelly, who will move on to Heriot’s immediately after the Grand Finals next week and will likely be with his new club side for their upcoming match next Friday.


Kelly can take solace in knowing that once a part of the Valley rugby family, always part of the family.


“We have had messages from former players and supports all over the world this week. The players know they are playing for themselves and each other, but also for the Valley community and they’re ready.”


Notes for spectators:

After careful consideration and consultation, the HKRU has decided to proceed with the Saxo Markets Grand Championship Final. In light of the coronavirus situation, the game will be played without admittance to spectators and live-streamed on the HKRU Facebook page. We know that there will be many fans disappointed, but hope that the public will understand these measures are being taken with the safety of all spectators, players and officials in mind.