21st Nov 2015

Russia beat Hong Kong 31-12 in the final of the inaugural Hong Kong Rugby Union Cup of Nations tonight, while Portugal beat Zimbabwe 36-11 to claim third place.

Despite Hong Kong getting on the board first through a penalty from fly-half Ben Rimene in the third minute, Russia had the superior start in the final, dominating the exchanges in the forwards from the outset.

“It was two really evenly matched teams out there, but we started really well,” said Russia captain Vasily Artemyev. “We strung together eight or ten phases from the outset which led to our first try.”

Russia was rewarded for its hot start when centre Igor Galinovsky crossed over to finish off a sustained period of pressure from the visitors. Fly-half Sergey Yanyushkin’s conversion was wide, giving Russia a 5-3 lead from the opening exchanges.

From then on, Russia kept Hong Kong on the back foot, pressurising the home fifteen into conceding two more early penalties, both taken by Yanyushkin, extending Russia’s lead to 11-3 after the first quarter.

In an attempt to stem the bleeding up front, Hong Kong made two quick substitutions with hooker Alex Harris and lock Paul Dwyer giving way to Jamie Tsang and Adrian Griffiths respectively.

“Our set piece didn't function early on and our line-out and scrum was a bit wobbly. As a result we couldn’t get on the front foot. If you can’t get the set piece right against a team like Russia, things are going to be difficult, so we made a few tactical substitutions early on in an attempt to be a bit more proactive. If something wasn’t working, we wanted to try and fix it immediately,” said Hong Kong coach Andy Hall.

The changes helped steady the ship midway through the opening half and Hong Kong were awarded for a positive period of play with a second penalty, again converted by Rimene, leaving them trailing 11-6 after 27 minutes.

With Russia dominating in both the possession and territorial stakes, Hong Kong had to dig deep in defence. A valiant effort helped slow the visitors down, especially at the ruck, as Hong Kong kept the Russians off the scoreboard for the rest of the half. Rimene’s third penalty in the 38th minute clawed Hong Kong back to within two points at 11-9 at half-time.

Russia adroitly changed tactics in the second half, looking to play rugby in Hong Kong’s half with some solid tactical kicking that kept the hosts penned in for most of the final forty minutes. The tactic worked brilliantly, as Russia pressurised Hong Kong’s wings with high balls, forcing the defence into conceding a penalty in the 44th minute, which was slotted over by Yanushkin.

Keeping their foot on the accelerator, Russia followed up with a rapid-fire try from Artemyev four minutes later, again coming from a solid chase of the deep ball. Yanushkin’s first conversion of the match gave the Russians a commanding 21-9 lead.

Hong Kong could only manage a penalty in reply as Rimene converted his fourth attempt to close the gap to 21-12 but the hosts never threatened to wrest the match off Russia.

The Russians finished well with Yanushkin adding a drop goal in the 70th minute, followed by a try from reserve back Anton Sychev four minutes later. Yanushkin’s second conversion gave him 14 points from his outing and brought Russia’s final margin of victory to 31-12.

“In the second half, we did well to put the ball behind their wingers. Once we got a bit of a lead, we knew Hong Kong would have to chase the game and that the pressure would be on them, which led to a few mistakes,” said Artemyev.

It was Russia’s second consecutive tour victory in Hong Kong after they swept the hosts in last year’s two-match Ustinov Cup series.

“It was definitely tougher than last year. Hong Kong is much improved, but we have improved as well. We were probably a bit more clinical today but it was very evenly matched. We knew coming in that Hong Kong would be our toughest opponent and that was definitely the case,” Artemyev concluded.

“Defensively, we were heroic,” said Andy Hall, “But without that parity up front we couldn’t close the gap. It’s a bit disappointing, but this has been a great competition for us. We need to be playing at this intensity more and more often, and when we do, we will win more of these than we lose,” he added.

Portugal took third after beating Zimbabwe 36-11. Zimbabwe started well, taking a 3-0 lead in the 20th minute after a penalty from flyhalf Tichafara Makwanya. But Portugal replied well, leveling the scores with a penalty moments later.

Zimbabwe played its most structured rugby of the tournament early on, which kept them in contention in the first half, but their conditioning was an issue today as the effects of three tests in eight days started to tell on the African forwards, who failed to match Portugal’s pace.

Portugal took the lead for good in the 32nd minute, scoring their first try through scrumhalf Francisco Vieira who spotted the gap in the African defence and backed himself in a solo scamper for 50 metres before touching down. Fullback Duarte Marques’ conversion pushed Portugal ahead 10-3. Sensing blood in the water, Portugal upped its work rate and struck again in the 37th minute, pushing over from in close with burly prop Bruno Rocha claiming the try and a 15-3 lead at half-time.

The second half was more of the same as Portugal’s forwards used their weight advantage to good advantage, scoring off a rolling maul from a line-out deep in Zimbabwe territory as No.8 Francisco Sousa crossed over in the 56th minute. Marques’ conversion pushed the lead to 22-3.

Makwanya replied with a second penalty in the 63rd minute, but Portugal again answered from the re-start with Sousa collecting his brace. Marques’ conversion brought the score to 29-6 before centre Jose Lima scored again a minute later. Marques’ third conversion left the score at 36-6 late in the match before Zimbabwe scored a pretty consolation try when reserve prop Nicolo Nyemba finished a nice flowing move to bring the final score to 36-11.

Russia topped the Cup of Nations table on 13 points, followed by Hong Kong on nine and Portugal on six points after collecting their second bonus point in two games. Winless, Zimbabwe finished in fourth on zero points.

Portugal coach Olivier Baragnon credited improved execution for his side’s win. “We were more practical today. We executed much better but I don’t think the score was an accurate reflection of where we are compared with Zimbabwe or Hong Kong. Playing three tests against teams at this level is good for Portugal. Our players are young and a tournament like this gives us the opportunity to close the gap between international rugby and the level of the domestic competition at home.”