04 Oct 2019

Saturday concludes the first ever Saxo Markets Premiership Challenge Trophy tournament, a five-week front piece to the Premiership season designed to afford space for Hong Kong’s six elite clubs to trial their promising Under 25 year old players and integrate their new imports ahead of next weekend’s Saxo Markets Premiership kick-off.


After four rounds, the Challenge Trophy table has a familiar tinge to it with Natixis HKFC and Societe Generale Valley tied first.  Club fell to its first defeat last weekend at the hands of Valley - who clawed their way into a share of the lead ahead of the final round, with both teams now level on 16 points.


Bloomberg HK Scottish is next closest on the table at two wins and two losses, good for 11 points. Scottish’s two bonus point wins have them in front of Herbert Smith Freehills HKU Sandy Bay and Kerry Hotel Kowloon - on nine points each - and winless Borrelli Walsh USRC Tigers.  This weekend’s clashes will firm up the final margins with Valley hosting Kowloon at 13.00 (Happy Valley 6), while HKFC play Scottish at Football Club (16.45) and Tigers and Sandy Bay meet at Kings Park (15.00).


Valley’s 26-19 win over Club cracked a window for them to wrestle the Trophy from Club at the death. Valley and Scottish are both in contention, but Club’s superior points differential, +78, 37 ahead of Valley, should see them safely through.


Scottish will be out to spoil the party, and with wins over Club often few and far between, it all adds up for coach Craig Hammond.  Hammond, who does double duty in the Hong Kong and FWD South China Tigers coaching set-up, is an enthusiastic backer of the Challenge Trophy concept.


“Hong Kong players are playing a lot of rugby now with tests, sevens and the South China Tigers. We also play some really big teams now, like Canada, Germany and Spain. Against them, we have to be able to get the gain-line and be more dynamic and stronger in defence. One of our major takeaways from last season was that our players needed to improve their conditioning and bulk up a bit.


“In addition to seasoning the next generation, the Trophy has helped put a good off-season and pre-season programme in place for the ERP players. They have had six weeks of prep and are now coming back more explosive, and many are much bigger physically as well, with a few guys having put on six to eight kilos of muscle weight this pre-season. It has really benefited them,” Hammond added.


Now Scottish and the rest of the Premiership clubs can focus on integrating their ERP stars back into first XVs ahead of next week’s Premiership kick-off.


“This will prove very beneficial for Hong Kong come the November tests window. The guys want to perform this season and the hunt for places is getting much tougher. The players returning need to perform for their clubs and that will have a positive knock-on effect in the Premiership as a whole,” Hammond said.


As will the impact of nearly 40 new signings across the six clubs, a few of whom have already been in good form for Scottish this season including backs Peter Jercevich and Mike Green.

“The new signings have raised the standard already, which is great. We need to pick the club level up even higher. Stats from the South China Tigers showed we need more physicality and more ball in play time in particular. These are all areas that we have been working on and need to improve on to help the international game in Hong Kong.”


Given the Premiership kicks off next weekend, Hammond is using the tie with Football Club as an early chance to work his ERP players back into the club structure, with Hong Kong standouts Dayne Jans, Kane Boucaut and Jack Parfitt amongst several returning stars in Shek Kep Mei.


“Now that they are returning to the clubs they need to work on some of their match conditioning and get back into the patterns and structures of their clubs. Results are not the be all and end all in the Challenge Trophy. Given that, there is still an opportunity for us to have a go here, and there are a couple of guys we have identified from lower down the ranks that we now know can perform at this level, which will help us late in the season.”


For Hammond another positive outcome of the Challenge Trophy is the impact it has on the Premiership campaign.


“It gives a different spin on the season now as well. It makes it a bit fresher, and there is some good excitement now around a 10-week Premiership. Every game matters, and the clubs have to come in ready.


“We are straight into it next weekend and I’m excited. Traditionally, everyone is feeling each other out a bit in the first rounds, but now teams need to hit the ground running. It will come down now to who can best keep form down 10 weeks, plus semis and finals. There is no need to overthink it now. Each game is a must win,” he added.


Given that, Hammond will take full advantage of his early look at Club on Saturday: “It is always a good brush-up at Club. They are physical and have game-breakers across the 23. They leave it all on the field and have gone as hard as they can already.


“They are probably disappointed about their results last week. We’re also disappointed in our performance last week, having created a lot of opportunities against Sandy bay (a 30-22 loss) but not capitalising. So it is about us on Saturday and in the Premiership as a whole.


“We aren’t focused on anyone else, purely ourselves. If we get our performance right, we will be okay. They like to play a lot of rugby and be physical so I think we need to be a bit tougher individually on Saturday and show a bit of mongrel. Keep creating opportunities but also close them out.”


“It’s do or die time now.”


The ten-week Premiership runs from 14 October to 18 January, with semi finals on 2 February and the Grand Championship final on 8 February.