11 Jan 2019

Saxo Capital Market’s Men’s Premiership action resumes with a barn-burner on Saturday at Shek Kip Mei (15.00) when league leaders Bloomberg Hong Kong Scottish face last year’s league champions Borrelli Walsh USRC Tigers, currently ranked fourth.  In other Premiership action, Kerry Hotel Kowloon hosts Herbert Smith Freehills HKU Sandy Bay at King’s Park, also at 15.00, while Natixis HKFC face Societe Generale Valley at Sports Road (18.15).


Scottish boast the best record with seven wins from eight outings - their single loss coming at the hands of Football Club in early October, but that success has them just six points ahead of second placed HKFC on 34 points, while just three points constitute the difference in the fight for second with third-ranked Valley (27 points) and Tigers (24) rounding out the top four. It all sets the stage for some compelling action over what promises to be a pivotal four rounds heading into the final league break for the Lunar New Year in February.


Scottish turned the calendar on 2018 looking the strongest outfit overall with a newfound strength in depth that has rarely been seen at Shek Kip Mei since the club’s inception seven seasons ago. Coach Craig Hammond chalked their progress up to some savvy recruitment and the continued maturation of a squad with a healthy influx of Hong Kong rugby’s next generation players like James Christie, Mark Coebergh and Alessandro Nardoni.


Tigers’ efforts to repeat were dealt some minor set-backs at the end of 2018 by the keenly felt absence of captain Josh Hrstich and injuries in the front row in particular, and by a persistent slow start issue that left coach Sam Hocking frustrated on the eve of 2019.  Tigers managed to overcome that issue in the stretch run to last season’s historic first league title and like all of the Premiership sides, will need to start fast in January’s crucial competition.


After being in a similar position in previous seasons only to be caught up at the finish line, Hammond is aware that Scottish cannot afford to slip up in the coming weeks


“In previous years, at the business end of the season we probably picked up one or two injuries to key players that derailed us a bit, but we are stronger now. We recruited well in the off-season and a number of the young players and Premiership A squad stepped up before Christmas.


“The squad as a whole is maturing. The players are taking more ownership of performance compared to previous seasons and they remember that feeling from those disappointing finishes previously.”


Scottish’s numbers are holding strong, with scrum-half James Christie and centre Andrew Henderson the most prominent injuries to start the new year, but both are expected to return before the end of the season.  That depth is for Hammond the missing element from previous Premiership campaigns.


“We recruited well and recruited the right kind of players for Scottish. There is a strong one club culture for us across the Premiership, Premiership A and National League and ladies team, everyone is on the same mission and all with the same goal.”


Hammond says the next four weeks will be decisive and is calling on his squad to start 2019 fast.


“All of the coaches are going to be saying the same thing, the key is to get a fast start after Christmas. If you look at the other sides and the standings, we can’t afford to be lethargic; fortunately it doesn’t look like the guys have got too fat over the holiday,” joked Hammond, who refused to be drawn on his present fighting weight.


“The guys have come back ready to go and have shown that in training. We have a good contingent of ERP players, which has really helped in maturing the squad and has lifted the conditioning level across the club and the league.”


Hammond insists that his side are taking matters week by week given their experience in past campaigns and is excited at the competition ahead.


“Tigers are back to full strength, Valley are rounding into shape and Sandy Bay were playing really good footie at the end of the year, Kowloon looks closer to full strength and should run out a strong side on Saturday, so it’s pretty interesting at the moment in how tight things are.”


Hammond’s club will experience that parity first hand with Tigers returning in strength to start the stretch run.


“There are still a lot of work-ons for us. We need to continue our set piece performance, which was a key before the break. Defensively we must keep working hard. We had a good attack-defence ratio in the first part of the year which sort of justifies where we are on the table, but we have to continue to assess and reassess where we are on a weekly basis really.”


Hammond is also excited to start the year at Shek Kip Mei in a match with the Broonie Quaich, Hong Kong rugby’s Ranfurly Shield style silverware, on the line.


“We haven’t lost at home yet this season, so defending the Broonie Quaich is big for us,” he said.


The match between second and third-ranked Football Club and Valley on Saturday will also have a major impact on the standings.  Valley gathered steam across a testing end to the year, posting 99 points in wins over Kowloon and Tigers in the space of a week to move into third ahead of Saturday’s clash with Club, one above them on the log. Football Club bounced back from a home defeat by Scottish to beat Kowloon in the last Premiership match of the year, keeping its position as the front-runners challenging Scottish.


Kowloon will be eagerly anticipating the return of a raft of players that saw them competing on guts alone at the end of 2018 as they look to start afresh with against Sandy Bay, one spot and four points above them at the bottom end of the table.


With all sides returning rested and ready for action in what is one of the tightest Premiership races in recent memory the action in the Saxo Capital Markets Premiership is set to intensify in 2019.