01 Sep 2019

Hong Kong’s men’s and women’s sevens squads enjoyed podium finishes in Incheon, South Korea, winning Silver and Bronze respectively in the opening leg of the 2019 Asia Rugby Sevens Series, the first of a three-leg prelude to the 2020 Olympic qualifiers this November.

The Men beat South Korea, 29-12, in the last pool game and later toppled China, 21-7, in the semi final to reach the showcase.  The final with Japan was a typically taut affair with just two points separating the sides entering the last four minutes, before Japan opened up the margin late, winning 21-12.

Hong Kong struck first, scoring in the first minute through Tom McQueen, who slotted back into the side with ease despite a long absence from international duties for pilot training. McQueen marked his first start of the tournament by skinning the Japanese defence outside to score in the corner as Hong Kong took a 5-0 lead.

On the next possession, Japan used their big forwards well, battering Hong Kong’s rush defence to eventually create space for a first long-range try of the evening as the defending series champions scored their first try beneath the posts to take a 7-5 lead. There was nothing in it for the rest of the half, but Japan broke free for another momentum-boosting try at the hooter to push their lead to 14-5.  

Hong Kong kicked deep to start the second half and the insertion of terrier back Jack Neville off the bench paid off, as he pounced on the loose ball coughed up by the harried Japanese defence. Forward Toby Fenn carried the ball deeper into Japan’s half before being stopped cold by three defenders ten metres out. With Hong Kong’s defence conceding the maul, the Japanese became frustrated at their inability to wrest the ball from Fenn’s grasp, eventually lifting him above horizontal, conceding a penalty to Hong Kong.

Scrumhalf Cado Lee was on the spot with the quick tap and go as he backed himself over the last few metres before bouncing over the try-line, closing the gap to two points at 12-14 with four minutes left.  

Now it was Hong Kong’s that lost concentration as they struggled to produce a positive finish.  Things derailed after Japan turned what looked to be a McQueen-forced defensive turnover into a fortunate counter-attack as they scored against the run of play to push their lead to 21-12.

Miscues at the ensuing re-start and a later lineout frustrated Hong Kong and sucked valuable time off the clock, derailing any potential comeback. The finish will have left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Hong Kong side, which may be a positive with two events yet to come on the circuit.  

A more detached analysis will reveal that Hong Kong is right where it wants to be after the opening clash, with their runners-up finish effectively placing them atop the seedings for the Olympic qualifiers, where Japan (as 2020 hosts) is absent.

Coach Paul John credited his side for a positive weekend on the whole, saying, “We’re really pleased with the boys effort. I thought they were excellent this week on and off the field. Of course, we are a bit disappointed with losing the final, but it’s always our goal to get there and to be one or two coming out of it.

“It’s getting harder and harder to reach those finals now, but we did that. It was a good, tough tournament for us with games against the Philippines, Korea and China, who are all really improving.

“I’m very pleased the way we came through that and although we are disappointed not to win it, but there was not much in it once again really. We are disappointed that we didn’t take some of the opportunities we had and had a few 50/50 balls went against us, but that’s sevens.”

Claiming Bronze was a strong pay-off for a women’s side side featuring a number of Age Grade players transitioning to senior ranks, including Florence Symonds, Amy Pyle and Jessica Eden, all of who featured prominently this weekend.

The women started the day with a breezy 35-0 win over series first-timers Malaysia to reach the cup semi against China, where they were beaten 19-5 in a relatively subdued performance. They bounced back brilliantly in the bronze medal match to beat Kazakhstan, 17-10, behind a hat trick of tries from the 17-year old debutant Symonds.

Flyer Chong Ka-yan unleashed the attack from the kick-off with a great scamper that wrong-footed the Kazakh defence before she eventually sprung Symonds out wide for the 5-0 lead.  

Symonds turned in a textbook try-saving tackle after the re-start to preserve that margin at the break, while Eden also saved a certain score early on in the second half as Hong Kong’s youth movement showed some admirable muscle against the towering Kazakhs.

Hong Kong added more pace off the bench down the stretch as they looked to maintain the blistering tempo against a bigger, more sluggish Kazakh seven, and eventually Symonds was put clear out wide a second time as Hong Kong edged ahead 10-5.

Hong Kong were not afraid to muscle up when they had to, with Natasha Olson-Thorne and Nam Ka-man both coming back strongly from injury for some force projection this weekend. Olson-Thorne produced a massive turnover on her own line early in the second half preventing a certain try, but only for a moment as unfortunately Hong Kong returned the favour immediately, coughing up the ball to allow Kazakhstan an unmarked try on the wing.

A Kazakh miscue at the kick-off returned the ball to Hong Kong and Chong, who smartly sprinted up field to take a quick tap and go that put Hong Kong on the front foot.

The result was similar to the last odd-man rush into the Kazakh half, as Symonds skied under the posts for the hat-trick, pushing Hong Kong’s wining margin to 17-10 after Lee Tsz-ting’s conversion. Symonds’ big performance in an even bigger moment brought her weekend try total to a best in team four.

Coach Iain Monaghan was pleased with his side’s performance, particularly the mental toughness shown over the tournament.

“It shows that our pre-season has really paid off, we were fitter and stronger in the last game today and we grew in confidence throughout the weekend, particularly in coming back after that game against China.

“In the second half against China we left a few scores on the ground and the girls were disappointed in our performance but we re-focussed well. The semis and bronze match against China and Kazakhstan was like two playing back-to-back finals, and I was really pleased with the way the team responded to t challenge. The girls showed some great character.”

Japan beat China in the women’s final while China beat South Korea to claim bronze in the men’s competition.