13 Sep 2017

Societe Generale Valley will look to youth as they eye a sixth straight Grand Championship winwhen the HKRU Old Mutual International Men’s Premiership kicks off on 23 September.

The champions will need to be at their best to continue their dominant reign as the likes of Kowloon and Bloomberg HK Scottish continue to make ground in a Premiership that gets more even by the year.

Valley have so far added only one player to last year’s title-winnersinNew Zealander, Sean Conner.Conner has played Mitre Cup rugby at home and coach Andrew Kelly plans to use him on the wing or at fullback to help strengthen the backs in the absence of a trio of Hong Kong-capped players unavailable this season.

Max Woodward is now playing in Japan’s Top League, Ed Rolston has retired and Ryan Meacheam has returned to New Zealand but Kelly is confident there will be no lack of motivation for his charges and hopes the progress of a number of youngsters will keep the side moving forward.

“I think we’ll be pretty keen to go again, we have a lot of young, determined guys coming through, so hopefully they will push the older guys and give them a bit of energy,” Kelly said.

“We have some guys that were involved in the Hong Kong under 20s – Thaddeus Summers, Paul Altier and Sam Jupp who missed out on the under 20s but had been training with the squad. They’re all young guys coming through that will help push the older guys.

“Also, Hugo Stiles comes back to us from the UK and he’s involved with Hong Kong’s sevens squad set-up. He’s another guy that will add a bit of energy.”

Despite somedisruption in the Valley backline, Kelly is pleased with the state of his forward pack: “We’ve done well to retain pretty much all of our forwards, which is excellent. We do have a few backs spaces that we need to fill, but apart from that we should have another strong squad,” he said.

Bloomberg HK Scottishare one of the biggest challengers to Valley’s crown and will have a point to prove after looking likely at times last season before fading late.

Back rower Ewan Miller, lock Lars Morrice from the Chiefs Development Programme and twins Gregor and Marcus Ramage have all moved on, however prop Ashley Hyde, hooker Shea Turner and utility back Sam Vaevae – all from New Zealand, and Australian back rower Loveni Enari will help fill the void.

“We haven’t lost many, but losing Ewan, our seven, who hasgone back to Scotland was a bit disappointing as he was one of our standout players last year.Otherwise we’re not too far off. They [the recruits] have been here for a few weeks and they’ve gone quite well,” said coach Craig Hammond.

Hammond believes his side now has the depth to prevent a repeat of the late-season fadeout that cost Scottish so dearly in 2016-17.

“We had a few blunt discussions within the team at the end of last season about what went well and where we need to improve. It was good to get everyone together and put it all on the line, it can only make us better,” he said.

“We’ve got to get off to a good start. We’ve got a few home games to start with so it’s putting all that stuff from the end of last season onto the field.”

Beaten finalists last season, Kowloon have stuck largely with the tried and tested and head into the new year with a squad that coach James Scaysbrook says is “settled”.While ex-England star Olly Barkley won’t return, Scaysbrook has found the perfect replacement in Scott Sneddon, who has played in the Welsh Premier Division.

“[Scott] is coming in as a player/coach, the same role that Olly was in last year,” Scaysbrook said.

“Scott was coaching Rosslyn Park [in London] last year, and has played a fair bit of top-level rugby. His primary role is to coach and on top of that he’ll be in the squad as a player.Everyone who was here last year has stayed so we are pretty settled.

“We have progressed over the past two seasons and hopefully we continue to do so.We’ve had a really good, hardworking pre-season and hopefully we can build throughout the year.”

Prop Rohan Cook comes into the squad from Herbert Smith Freehills HKCC, while fly half Jack Neville – one of the competition’s best last season – is set to find yet another gear after impressing for the Hong Kong sevens team.

Natixis HKFC were bundled out by Valley in the semi-finals and come into 2017-18 on the back of a rigorous pre-season, with coach Phil Bailey pleased with the direction his squad is heading.

“We are still building. We are pushing a lot of young guys through and we just want to continually improve.We have been doing a lot of high-intensity work and our strength and conditioning guys have been doing a really good job of trying to get more output from the players,” he said.

“More explosiveness is what we’re looking for and that effort-on-effort stuff.”

Second-rower Josh Afu has returned to Queensland and Hong Kong-capped Dan Falvey has taken a job in England, while lock Patrick Jenkinson from Bath University comes in to fill the void in the forward pack.

Winger Marno Meyer, who has played in France’s Pro D2, is another addition and Glyn Hughes, a utility back who played last season for London Welsh in the English Championship, looks set to give HKFC real direction.

On top of that, Bailey is hoping for an increased output from Henry Williams and Ben Willis after both missed large chunks of the last campaign due to injury.

HKCC are one of two sides with new coaches this season, (along with Borrelli Walsh USRC Tigers), with Brett Wilkinson coming in to replace Kevin West, who spent 2016-17 as interim boss after Deacon Manu stepped down on the eve of the first round.Wilkinson, a South African who played professionally for Connacht, has most recently been coaching the Buccaneers RFC in Ireland.

“I’ve just been settling in, getting to know the systems and working the boys hard in pre-season,” said Wilkinson, who arrived in Hong Kong at the beginning of August.

“I’m enjoying it. It’s different from what I’m used to and where I’ve come from, but it’s those new challenges that I’m keen to embrace.”

Wilkinson, who played as a prop, has seen Premiership games in the past and has been impressed.

“It’s a very competitive league, teams are looking to play with tempo and pace, it’s a good standard and Hong Kong going professional has further raised the bar,” he said.

“I’m hoping to bring a physicality to our game, ensure we are good with our set piece and also move the ball to space and play what’s in front of us. I want guys making the right decisions on the field and taking their opportunities.”

A number of players have left in the off-season, with full back James Love and fly half Jason Kjestrup both leaving Hong Kong, while Alex and Tom McQueen are in Australia for pilot training. Cook left forKowloon while fellow front-rower Jack Nielson moved to HKFC.On top of that, front-five stalwarts Paul Dwyer and James Cooper have retired and centre Andrew Krelle has moved to Tigers.

To counter the considerable losses, HKCC recruited hooker Jak Lam from the Exeter Chiefs academy, Scottish midfielder Gair Currie, ex-Canterbury Sevens captain Lawrence Babe, utility back Jack Metters from Waikato and Luke van der Smit, a flanker/centre withCurrie Cup experience.

Tigers will be coached by Sam Hocking, who has played for the club previously, but is unsure as yet if he’ll be required to take the field in 2017/18.

“We have got a settled squad, and I obviously want to put my own stamp on the game we play, which is why I’m looking tothis season as more of a building year,” Hocking said.

“I want to get a solid season under our belts. We’re in a different situation now where we are a lot better suited in terms of Hong Kong qualified players and have retained most of our players from last season.”

Prop Ryan Campbell has moved to Valley, Cado Lee Ka-to is playing in Japan and Will Eversfield and Jack Capon have returned to the UK to study, but apart from that, Tigers have managed to keep the core of their squad.

Coming into the club are hooker Nick Seymour and flanker Joe Elyatt from Stade Rouennais in France’s Federale 1 league, as well as Hong Kong-born prop Ian Etheridge and HKCC’s Krelle.

Hocking is looking forward to seeing Liam Gallaher, Sam Purvis and Dan Barlow in action, with the trio capped on Hong Kong’s recent tour of Kenya: “That’s only going to help the club on the whole.”

The Super Saturday triple-header at King’s Park on 23 September kicks off with Valley tackling the Tigers, before HKCC face Scottish and HKFC take on Kowloon.