23 Sep 2018

Borrelli Walsh USRC Tigers, Natixis Hong Kong Football Club and Bloomberg Hong Kong Scottish all emerged as winners after today’s opening round of the Saxo Capital Markets Hong Kong Premiership today at King’s Park.

Tigers picked up where they left off after last year’s league championship campaign, but not before digging a 17-0 first half hole against Kerry Hotels Kowloon in the opening match of the Premiership season.

Winger Christopher Kinlock scored the opening try of the Premiership for Kowloon after a 60-metre sprint out of traffic on the far touchline. Fly half Jack Hughes added the extras, en route to a 16-point day with the boot off four penalties and two conversions.

Hughes extended the lead with a penalty in the 15th minute, before Kowloon nabbed its second try four minutes later when No. 8 James Sawyer finished off a clinical attacking line-out deep in Tigers territory. Kowloon brought the ball to ground cleanly, before quickly mounting a driving maul that deposited Sawyer over the line with interest.

Kowloon’s precision in the lineout was in contrast to Tigers’ line-out, which failed to fire for most of the day. While struggling at the line-out, Tigers made a statement with their scrum as a pack that looks even leaner and better conditioned than last year repeatedly bossed the Kowloon pack around the park.

Hughes’ conversion of Sawyer’s score brought Kowloon’s lead to 17-nil before Tigers managed their first points off of a penalty to fly half Robbie Keith that trimmed the lead to 17-3.

Hughes converted his second penalty with ten minutes remaining in the half to push Kowloon ahead 20-3, before things took a disastrous turn for the maroon and white, starting with a yellow card against prop Dan Elkington in the 38th minute for a high tackle.

Tigers quickly capitalized on the man advantage as they rumbled back to Kowloon’s try-line before hooker Matt Keay wriggled through the defence for the Tigers first try of the campaign. Keith’s conversion was true, halving Kowloon’s lead at 20-10.

Tigers continued to pick up momentum as the game wore on and capitalized again on the extra space afforded by Elkington’s yellow to start the second half with an attacking foray from the kick-off that eventually resulted in Keith’s second penalty, closing the gap to within a try at 20-13.

The heretofore evenly contested tie went off the rails in the 47th minute after a moment of madness from Tomasi Lawa, whose dangerous tackle earned a straight red card and reduced Kowloon to 14 men for the remainder.  Tigers pounced on their chances, setting up three long-range tries, all finished by fullback Casey Stone, whose natural hat-trick puts him in the lead in the try-scoring stakes.

Kowloon did well to retain possession across the final ten minutes, not only limiting the damage but continuously pressing for points, as Hughes slotted his third penalty to bring Kowloon back into it trailing 28-23.  Keith added a three-pointer of his own moments later to extend the margin to 31-23 before Hughes struck his fourth and final penalty to narrow the deficit 31-26 at the hooter.

Tigers coach Sam Hocking was relieved at overcoming a tough opening hurdle, saying, “I wasn’t happy with our first 20 minutes. We started off a bit slow and some of those silly little penalties we made gave them a platform to build on. We let the pressure off of them on a few occasions.

“But I’m not worried about it; it was something that was an issue for us last year, but I’m putting faith in our pre-season strength and conditioning and that that will come out, particularly at the end of games. I know we’re going to finish games strong. It’s not worrying, but it’s something we need to work on.

“It’s early days yet, but I was happy with the way the boys played,” added Hocking.

Today’s second game saw Herbert Smith Freehills HKU Sandy Bay fall to a 45-13 loss to Natixis HKFC. The Sports Road outfit jumped all over Sandy Bay to mar the newly formed super club’s coming out party as they squelched their opponents with a 24-point first half.  

Flanker Raef Morrison marked his return to Hong Kong Premiership action with a try after just five minutes, with rock solid fly half Glyn Hughes adding the conversion - and a penalty three minutes later - as HKFC pushed their lead to 8-0 after eight minutes.

Sandy Bay scrumhalf Jack Metters replied for his side on the next available opportunity, less than a minute later, with his penalty cutting the margin to five points.  Hooker Mitch Andrews returned the favour shortly after, with his try extending Club’s lead further.  

Metters replied with a second penalty a yellow card against Salafai Mika made the going that much harder for Sandy Bay.

Shortly before half-time centre Ben Axten-Burrett capitalized on the extra space to score his first of the season as Football Club pushed its lead to 24-6 at half-time. The second half saw more of the same as new signee, Irish lock Sam Pim, scored his first try for HKFC in the 47th minute, followed by a conversion and yet another penalty from Hughes as the margin ballooned to 31-6.

Sandy Bay were awarded a penalty try midway through the half to make the score somewhat more palatable, trailing 31-13, but were unable to close the gap further. Winger Niall Rowark and centre Tom Hill added insult to injury with late tries for Club who won 45-13.

The evening’s finale between Bloomberg Hong Kong Scottish and Societe Generale Valley proved to be the highlight of an entertaining day, with another close-run affair putting the increasing parity of the Premiership on showcase.

Bolstered by an influx of new faces, Scottish managed to get both its first opening day win in several years, and its first win over Valley since the 2016/17 season.

There was little between the sides today, with a one-point game on offer at half-time as Scottish led Valley 6-5 after two penalties from fly half Gregor McNeish gave them the slimmest of buffers over Valley, whose points came from a try from returning Hong Kong schools player Harry Sayers making his Valley debut.  Sayers was joined by former U20s captain Richie Lewis in marking their debuts for the red and black with both youngsters’ impressing with their heady play.

Scottish came out with intensity to start the second half, spurred by the addition of Hong Kong back and front rowers in Kane Boucaut and Adam Fullgrabe after the break.  The Scottish spirit built as the match wore on, with the boys from Shek Kip Mei feeding off some massive tackles and a hectoring defence that kept Valley off the boil down the stretch.

Despite the single digit score line, the second half saw plenty of end-to-end action as both sides pushed forward for the victory to start the season. The Scottish pack turned in two pivotal scrums early in the half to frustrate Valley into conceding a kickable penalty, which McNeish slotted for the first points of the half as Scottish extended its lead to 9-5.

Conor Hartley increased the lead moments later after McNeish had done well to gain ground with a booming touch-finder.  Scottish retained the possession through multiple phases, stretching Valley’s defence across the park before centre Andrew Henderson set up Hartley to crash over for the try. McNeish’s conversion attempt was off the mark but Scottish had finally put daylight between it and the reigning grand champions, leading 14-5 with 30 minutes remaining.

At the 60-minute marker, it was Valley’s turn on attack as they camped out for an extended stay on the Scottish try-line, working their way through two line-outs and two penalty scrums on the Scottish five-metre line.

The enormous pressure told eventually as the Scottish scrum buckled on its line conceding a penalty try as Valley had again trimmed the lead to within three.

Trailing 14-12, with 20 minutes on the clock, Valley seemed on track for another come from behind win, but Scottish had come too far to be denied.

Big lock Jamie Pincott reminded his teammates of this as he muscled his way through the Valley defence to score a key try late in the match. Pincott’s tally came off of a scrum deep in Valley’s half. A good eight-man shove by Scottish generated the go-forward required and gave scrumhalf James Christie, (another Hong Kong U20s star who made a promising senior Premiership debut today), options in attack.  Pincott picked a strong running line to take the ball back into midfield and did well to keep his arms free in the tackle to touch down as he was tackled on the line.

That try gave Scottish some breathing room as they pushed their lead to nine points, 21-12, with under ten minutes left.  

A late penalty from Matt Rosslee closed the gap to 21-15, opening up the possibility of a come from behind win, but solid kicking from hand by McNeish kept Valley off-balance and Scottish claimed the 21-15 win.

Scottish also retained the HKRU’s Ranfurly Shield-style silverware, the Broony Quaich, after holding it over the close season. The Quaich is put on the line at every home match and all Super Saturdays throughout the league season.

Coach Craig Hammond was more relieved than happy at the end of the marathon encounter, saying, “The boys worked really hard and we had a good week of training coming in. The last few weeks we haven’t been clicking and we knew we needed to to be able to perform against these guys.

“Those last 20 minutes, with the effort and work rate of the guys, is what we have been working towards in preseason, so it was good to see that come through in the last minute. There is still a lot to work on but we are pretty happy.

“That’s a good start for us and the first time we have won the opening game of the season and beat Valley in a few years I think, so it was a good result. The boys will celebrate tonight but then it’s on to preparing for Kowloon at home next weekend,” added Hammond.