16th Oct 2023

Saturday Report: 


Hong Kong, China Men and Women’s Sevens sides reached the Cup semifinals in Bangkok in what is the final round of the Asia Rugby Sevens Series 2023. The stadium and event were well organised by Thai Rugby Union and Asia Rugby, but nobody could control the weather which saw the matches get underway at close to 40 degrees and 80% humidity, but regardless saw some scintillating, physical, and beautiful rugby played on Saturday.


The men are the reigning Series champions and still have a chance to retain the title this year and add it to the recent Asia Games gold medal triumph but they will have to first overcome UAE in the Cup semi-final on Sunday at the Police Stadium in Bangkok. 


They also need to hope that Malaysia can do them a huge favour and upset the Japanese in the other semifinal. Due to the two-leg nature of this year's series, and because the men had lost to Japan twice in South Korea in the first leg, if they and Japan do reach the final and Hong Kong does beat the Japanese, they would still lose the title based on head-to-head matches in this Series.


Much is still in their hands though, and the squad and the coaches were happy with the first day's performances in which they racked up 147 points in their three pool wins over Malaysia (43-5), Singapore (43-0), and South Korea, and only conceded one try all-day. Bryn Phillips ended the day as the men’s overall top point scorer with 4 tries and 5 conversions.


Their final pool match was actually a huge statement win against a team that has become an arch-rival over recent years, South Korea. The squad ran in a resounding and comprehensive victory with a final scoreline of 61-0 in what were uncomfortably humid and sweaty conditions under the spotlights. The win was ruthless and clinical and the coaches will want more of the same tomorrow and in the months to come.


Men’s Head Coach Jevon Groves said, “It was a pretty amazing day. The boys that came into the squad this weekend, and some have not played for a while, added the physical energy we needed and it was great to broaden the depth of our squad.” Paul John agreed and was pleased with the performance saying it doesn't matter who they pick in the squad, and that everyone makes a difference and every player works hard for each other.


The coaches are not dismissing the UAE in the semifinal clash either, as the opposition has been steadily building over the past two seasons and overcame China and the Philippines on Saturday before coming unstuck against the Japanese after the UAE had a player red-carded. 


Groves said of their threat, “We have to focus on the first game tomorrow as the UAE has caused us problems in the past”. He in particular was proud of the defensive efforts of his squad on Saturday and said the same effort would be needed on Sunday. “They have big steppers and big ball carriers so we will have to be strong defensively against them.”


He joked he would be making the squad watch the RWC 2023 quarterfinal involving his beloved Wales on Saturday night before the boys rest for the final day.


The women once again performed well under Head Coach Andy Vilk and backed up the bronze from the Asian Games with two solid pool wins over Kazakhstan (31-5), and Malaysia (39-10 including a Julia Mibuy Mba Oyana hat trick) before playing the Japanese in their final pool match. 


Hong Kong had try-scorers across the team today and racked up a highlight reel of great cover tackles and big hits on day one.


However, the speed and efficiency of the Sakura side meant they fell behind early by two scores and were behind 0-10 by halftime. Hong Kong, China were tenacious and pulled the game back with a converted try but allowed Japan to score again in response and never managed to close the 17-7 gap. They were the team that pushed the current World Sevens Series side the hardest on the opening day and know it was small details which made the difference in the end. 


The squad had been tenacious in defence all day on Saturday and showed good ball retention and decisiveness in when to move the ball wide to use their pace, and when to use the power game up the middle. 


They will need that cohesiveness as they take on the Chinese in their Cup semi-final on Sunday. The Asian Games champions were themselves pushed hard by the Thai team in their final pool game, narrowly avoiding defeat and securing a 12-all draw but had done enough to top the pool and set up the playoff with Hong Kong China.


Sunday report: 


Hong Kong, China Men’s and Women’s Sevens sides both secured their spots in the Challenger Series 2024, with the men winning the Cup in Bangkok, and the women reaching a first Series final in years to win silver.

Women Finish Runners-Up


On another humid day in Thailand, although with more blustery conditions and added cloud cover, the Women’s Sevens team had a morning semifinal against China which followed Japan beating Thailand in the corresponding semifinal. 


Natasha Olson-Thorne scored early in the contest down the right hand side which was converted for a 7-0 lead. The Hong Kong team were camped in the Chinese 22m area but the Series and Asian Games champions managed to break out and score a length of field converted try to even the game up.


The half was tight with neither team able to make the most of their half chances until a break by Hong Kong saw Julia Mibuy Mba Oyana be put into enough space in the corner to dot the ball over for a 12-7 lead at the halftime hooter.


The second half saw Ka Man Nam get a vital score to open up some breathing space on the scoreboard 17-7, but the larger and physically imposing Chinese were going nowhere, knowing that a loss in the semifinal would also hand the Series title to Japan. 


Time was running out though, and despite a late score by China to close the gap to 17-14, the final whistle meant an elated Hong Kong squad and staff set up a meeting with Japan in the Cup final.


The swansong did not come though. An incredibly clinical and patient Japanese side put in a strong performance in the final, and early conceded tries left the Hong Kong China team chasing the scoreboard. Japan ran out to a 24-0 lead through four well worked tries but Hong Kong managed to score near the end through Chloe Chan but Japan responded before the final whistle for a 29-5 win to claim the Cup in Bangkok, and the Series, but Hong Kong China were delighted with the runner-up spot.


Women’s Head Coach Andy Vilk said of the weekend, “It’s exciting and the standard of competition has been good. It’s been a very busy time with the Series and the Asian Games and we have Olympic Qualifiers coming up. I was very fortunate to walk into this group which the other coaches had prepared so well. I just have been trying to contribute and get to know the team and get us to play that higher level of sevens rugby.”


On his team, the Englishman has been really impressed by their work rate and attitude. “I think anyone who watches can see how heartening that is, and when you have that heart behind it, it makes the technical work-ons so much easier. Every game they commit themselves to everything they do.”


Men Claim Bangkok Gold


The men’s team dismantled any UAE threat early in their semifinal, running in four tries by the half and not really being threatened. They carried on the same form in the second half to end on top 50-0 but not allowing their own try line to be breached was something Head Coach Jevon Groves had spoken about on day one.


The win also meant the team had secured qualification for the Challenger Series and another crack at reaching the highest level of SVNS rugby.


Men’s forward Callum McCullough said, “It has been hot this tournament and it has been a challenge, but I’m proud as we brought six new guys in for this tournament and we are slowly building. We are here to be the best in Asia and I thought that win over the UAE was a real statement. These wins and qualifying for the Challenger Series is big for us, and for the girls and the whole organisation. It gives us something to work towards so it is huge for all of us”.


McCullough said before the Cup match against Japan, which followed the one-sided and emphatic victory over UAE, “We want to win it and Japan and us always push each other so it will be a great contest”.


In the final match of the day, knowing the Series was out of reach due to Japan’s superior head to head record, the team were keen determined to continue their winning ways. Liam Doherty crossed over early for HKCR and the converted try meant the side led for most of the opening half.


However, the Japanese managed to score before the break to level things up at 7-7 and then added a second just before the hooter to take the lead into the half at 12-7. All weekend, the men had only conceded one try and they were eager to put things right.


Hong Kong China started the second half brighter and added a second converted try before Cado Lee added a third try to extend the lead and build scoreboard pressure on the opposition. 


Struggling to break the Hong Kong China defence, it was James Christie who sealed the win with a fourth and final score to make it 26-12 at the final whistle in Bangkok.


Both sides will now be busy preparing for the Olympic 7s Qualifiers in Japan, and now can start planning for the Challenger Series with details of the legs for 2024 still to be announced by World Rugby.


This article was written in collaboration with our friend Steve Noble at RugbyAsia 24/7