02 Oct 2015

The HKRU 2015/16 Domestic Season will kick-off with a Super Saturday at Kings Park (3 October), providing an early showcase for some new faces in the league. In addition to the normal influx of players, the coming season sees several changes in the coaching ranks with three of the six Premiership sides under new leadership.

Natixis Hong Kong Football Club welcome a new Director of Rugby in William Thomas and a new coach in ex-Rugby League star Phil Bailey. Thomas arrives after a decade of experience in Welsh Rugby, including stints at the Welsh Rugby Union and as CEO of Neath RFC. He also represented Wales at the 2001 Hong Kong Sevens. Bailey's Rugby League career is equally impressive with over 100 games for Cronulla Sharks and Wigan Warriors and caps for Australia.

On the player front, HKFC brought in winger/fullback Steve McCarron who has been playing in New Zealand. A native of Ireland, McCarron played several years in the All-Ireland League. In New Zealand, he was part of the Sumner Sevens side that won the Canterbury Sevens three years running and has played in the Auckland and Christchurch competitions.

Hooker/flanker Johnnie McCormick-Houston from Leeds University is also set to make his HKFC debut after previously playing for USM Morlaas in the French National One league and Richmond in England.

"The players have made an instant hit. Steve has shown his versatility, having slotted in on the wing and at fullback in the pre-season, and showing up well. Johnnie has shown he is a dynamic hooker but also a leader within the environment, which isn't surprising with him having captained Leeds University," said Thomas.

Sabre Kowloon also has a new coach in James Scaysbrook, who played for Bath and Exeter Chiefs and coached at Plymouth Albion (UK). Mark McMillan assumes the mantle of the Club's Director of Rugby for the coming season. Lewis Warner, also from Plymouth Albion, and winger/centre Ed Styles, who was playing for Nottingham, complete the UK connection in a reinforced Kowloon backline.

Kowloon are also fielding a trio of promising new Hong Kong eligible players in Hong Kong native James Cunningham, a back row who has played with the Waratahs Development team and the Manly Sea Eagles rugby league side; prop Adam Fullgrabe, who played age grade rugby for Hong Kong and joins the club from Eastern Suburbs in the Sydney Premiership and prop Jamie Tsang, who previously played with Hong Kong Cricket Club before going overseas to Worcester University.

"We have many new faces but they have all integrated quickly. We're targeting improved performance and growth in the 'wins' column", said McMillan. Kowloon is off to a strong start with pre-season wins over Leighton Asia Hong Kong Cricket Club (HKCC) - whom they will play in the season opener - and Borrelli Walsh USRC Tigers, who also have a new head coach in Craig Stewart.

Stewart joins four new players for the Premiership campaign, including Hong Kong scrum-half Cado Lee Ka To, who transferred from Kowloon. The Tigers' will be bolstered by the addition of new arrivals Craig Lodge, a second rower formerly with Cardiff Blues, fullback Casey Stone from New Zealand's Manawatu provincial competition and South African centre Braam Gerber who played Currie Cup rugby with the Blue Bulls and Boland Cavaliers.

Stewart is out to turn the Tigers' fortunes around: "We aim to be more competitive. We have a strong group and have been working hard. We needed to be better conditioned considering the surfaces in Hong Kong so that has been a pre-season focus. We haven't lacked the will, we just need a little luck, like keeping injury-free, but once we get a couple of wins under our belt, further success will follow."

Last year's top two outfits Societe Generale Valley and HKCC are settled in their selections with Bloomberg Hong Kong Scottish XV joining them as the sides keeping their Premiership XVs predominantly intact. Last season, Scottish muscled their way up the standings on the back of strong home stands at "the Rock" in Shek Kip Mei.

"The home victories at the Rock were very important and hopefully we can replicate that environment again this season, but I think the league will be stronger as all of the sides have recruited well. I expect the standard to rise significantly this season," said club General Manager and centre Bryan Rennie.

Scottish welcomed two quality domestic transfers in backs Rob Cleary from Valley and Hong Kong cap Dennis Chang from Tigers in the off-season, while newly signed overseas players include George Fleming, a second/back-rower from Taunton Titans (UK); Ben Cullen, a centre/back three from the Univ. of Queensland and scrumhalf Mikey Moeahu who has been involved in the New Zealand U19s set-up and the Western Force Academy.

"Mike brings a wealth of experience having played over 200 premier rugby games in New Zealand and been part of the Highlanders development camps as well as representing Otago Sevens. He has slotted well into the team and brings real competition to the squad, which is having a positive impact on training," said Hong Kong Scottish coach Craig Hammond.

Another focus of the club in the coming season is to continue its partnership with Edinburgh Napier University to develop rugby and other sports in less fortunate areas surrounding Shek Kip Mei. If Scottish can build on the already solid support in the local community, the Rock will continue to be the hardest away win in Hong Kong rugby.

Societe Generale Valley will be top contenders with a promising nexus of French and South African players preparing for another strike in 2015. To compensate for the loss of key forwards including No.8 Ben Davey and prop Kevin Curtis, Valley has brought in South African tight head Grant Kemp, who has played Currie Cup and Super Rugby for the South Western District Eagles and Southern Kings respectively. He was capped 13 times for the Southern Kings in Super Rugby.

The addition of another versatile front rower in Ben Higgins from the UK, returning to Valley after playing his junior rugby with the club, will further strengthen the Valley tight five as will new Kiwi lock Andrew Smith who has played representative level in New Zealand.

In the backs, Valley will welcome former Hong Kong centre Ally Maclay who will return from Scotland at the end of October. Furthering the high veldt-Valley pipeline, the club has signed South Africans Nicholas Holton and fullback Liam "Tiger" Bax. A centre/fly-half, Holton is a silky runner with a good eye for space while Bax has a cap for the Stormers in Super Rugby and has also played for Saracens.

"The pre-season has been good," said Valley head coach Jack Isaac. "We have had a very intensive camp under Kirk Munro. From all reports, we haven't had a pre-season like that for a long while. The new guys have integrated into the squad well, but I would still like us to be a bit sharper."

Consistency is an early focus for Isaac who, while enjoying the Club's run of Grand Championship success, would like to add a league title to the trophy case.

"I don't give more importance to league titles or Grand Championships but we are focusing on the week to week competition. Getting a bit more attitude, being 100% for each game and concentrating on winning week in, week out and not just coming right at the end of the season and putting a couple of good games together. Every club is stronger so it will be tougher this season, 100% commitment every week is essential," said Isaac.

Valley's win over HKCC in last year's Grand Final was the third consecutive year that these two sides have faced off in the league's last match. HKCC has enjoyed the best of the League stakes, while Valley has the run of play in the last 80 minutes of the season, with three Grand Championship titles over HKCC.

It's a record that will provide motivation for the Cricketers this season according to head coach Deacon Manu. "We were disappointed at the end of last season but we played well and that's just finals rugby really, things don't always go your way. It will be motivation for us, and a learning experience. It's important to understand where we could have improved and how we can still improve. We have the opportunity to put things right but there is a lot of hard work in front of us before we get to that stage.

"We retained a lot of guys from last year which is a big concern in Hong Kong with people moving on all the time, but the guys know we need to raise our standard," added Manu.

The most pressing holes for HKCC are in the pack after the departure of prop Jack Nielsen and No. 8 David Panerau. Manu commented on Nielsen's return to New Zealand saying, "Jack was a major part of the club. He's one of those guys that epitomized HKCC Rugby, first at training and the last to leave; he is a big loss to the club and to Hong Kong rugby."

The addition of Kiwi No.8 Marcus Slade, who has been playing most recently in France, will strengthen an already lethal back-row with Hong Kong reps Adrian Griffiths, Matt Lamming and the wily Moses Bailey.

Manu will also rely on his considerable front row strength with veterans like captain and hooker Ben Roberts and props Rohan Cook, Dylan Rogers and James Cooper holding down the fort, while awaiting the signing of some new players from New Zealand in November. Current Hong Kong U20s hooker Thomas Gibbs will also make the transition from Sandy Bay U19s to Senior Rugby in the season ahead.

"There are a couple of guys that we are eyeing but they are holding off while they see how their teams progress in the ITM Cup. They won't be here for the first round but we expect to announce more players soon," added Manu.

New signings in the backs include Mitchell Tamiau, who was in the England Sevens training squad last season and has played England Under 18s and for London Irish. Utility back Max Owens who has been playing in Sydney and Melbourne and Seb Brian, a former Hong Kong U20s representative who has recently returned from University.

The key for Manu is balancing the club's strengths: "We have a mix of styles. We bring a strong power game but also want to play expansive rugby as we have a lot of quality across the pitch. There are a lot of ball players in the side, but to be successful we can't get away from the basics. If we do the simple things well we'll be able to keep ourselves in contention."

Manu is under no illusions at the challenges ahead, "All of the teams have bolstered their sides with a lot of new talent. But the biggest shift is on the management side. I have a lot of respect for the guys involved in coaching and managing in the Premiership. The standard keeps getting better and this year's campaign will be tough for all of the teams."

Which side will cope best with the pressure? Local rugby fans will have to get out to Kings Park for the Hong Kong Rugby Union 2015/16 Domestic League kick-off on Saturday to find out!

HKRU Premiership Super Saturday Schedule:
Saturday, 3 October, 2015; Kings Park, Kowloon

HKRU Men's Premiership Time
Natixis Hong Kong Football Club v USRC Borrelli Walsh Tigers 15.00
Sabre Kowloon v Leighton Asia Hong Kong Cricket Club
Broony Quaich match. HKCC are holders.
Societe Generale Valley v Bloomberg Hong Kong Scottish 18.30