23 Nov 2020

Borrelli Walsh USRC Tigers beat Herbert Smith Freehills HKU Sandy Bay, 16-13, to claim its first Saxo Markets Premiership win since the 2018/19 season. After three rounds, the Premiership is as wide open as any in recent memory. In other round three matches, Natixis HKFC snuck past DAC Kowloon 20-19, while Bloomberg HK Scottish collected its first win of the campaign with a 36-22 win over Societe Generale Valley.


After holding its own through a difficult opening slate against last season’s one and two in HKFC and Valley, Tigers have been quietly circling a win since season start. They earned it today after bringing the goods from number one to 23. Talismanic Tigers captain Josh Hrstich was visibly relieved with a win he contributed to heavily, crediting a team-wide effort that made the difference for Tigers who shut the lights out on Sandy Bay in the second half.


It was expected to be a close run affair, and the first half went according to form with Sandy Bay holding a slim 10-6 lead at the break. Tigers pulled away shortly after the restart, taking the lead on the hour before standing tall with a committed team defence to get the monkey off their back.


Fly half Josh Henderson trimmed Sandy Bay’s lead to 10-9 early on in the second half after his third penalty of the day. The Scottish import controlled matters well behind the pack, as he consistently turned the Sandy Bay attack around with well-weighted kicks in behind the defence.


Aggression in defence and accuracy in attack were key for Tigers, who were times helped by a series of miscues from Sandy Bay, particularly during a disastrous third quarter where the visitors conceded penalty after penalty. Tigers took what was on offer with Henderson patiently slotting ball after ball deep to set up several attacking lineouts for Tigers.

The hosts failed to break through on their first two opportunities when coach Sam Hocking made a timely change, bringing on Hong Kong second row Craig Lodge. The third lineout proved the difference maker with Tigers bringing down the ball cleanly to start a series of forward attacks on the line. They recycled well in close and made consistent progress with an industrious rolling drive that positioned Lodge for one of his patented body-contorting tries. Henderson’s chip shot from 22 was good, giving Tigers a 16-10 edge.


That slim margin would hold into the final ten minutes when some much-needed urgency from Sandy Bay saw them tighten ship and earn a scoring opportunity 22 metres out from the posts.  Sandy Bay opted for the kick and reserve back Iwan Phillips slotted well to close the gap to 16-13 inside the final ten minutes.  As the clock ticked down it was all Sandy Bay on attack and it started to appear as if their patient approach would pay off after they secured another penalty just inside the Tigers half. The kick to the line was too shallow, leaving Sandy Bay with work to do outside the Tigers’ 22 metres. Some confusion at the lineout saw the ball dribble back to the defence who slotted it safely into touch to seal Tigers’ first win in more than a year.


“It was always going to be a tight battle, with two physical teams going at it, so it was great to hold on to get the win,” said Hrstich, who sees things flowing more smoothly from here.


“Those are the type of games winning teams manage to pinch, and probably we would have dropped a game like that before, so it is a credit to the boys to get a win like that, in a game that could have gone either way.”


Hrstich credited his sides’ accuracy as a key to victory: “We knew if we tidied up some of our work-ons we would be in with a chance and we proved that today. Executing in the 22 was a focus and we have let ourselves down with discipline at times. We gave a few silly ones away at the end, which almost cost us, but I’m just happy to have held out for the win.


“We believe in each other. When stuff happens you have to pick each other up, so it is a credit to how much the boys care about each other and how they work hard for each other. It has been a long time between drinks for us but we will get them in tonight,” added Hrstich.


As it so often is, it was a mirror story on the losing side, with Sandy Bay coach Brett Wilkinson paying tribute to Tigers while bemoaning his side’s accuracy issues.


“I really want to congratulate Tigers. They are a really good team and weren’t far off of it coming in. We made too many penalties and crucial turnovers today, too many mistakes. If you don't hold on to the ball you are not going to win in this league. The good thing is we have another chance to get back into the win column next week.”


Scottish broke its duck and handed Valley its first loss of the year 36-22 after two less than convincing outings to start the season.  Centre Mike Green and wing Jack Morris led try-scorers with a brace each, as Scottish put the icing on an emphatic victory with Morris’s last second score icing a game that was never truly in doubt.


At Sports Road, DAC Kowloon put in a big second half shift to nearly erase a 20-3 second half deficit, after a natural first half brace from Eremia Tapsell and a second try in as many weeks from Football Club captain Mitch Andrews. Max Denmark pushed the lead to 20-3 with his try to open the second stanza. The visitors’ first half points came from fly half Harry Johnston, whose three penalties in the second half nearly gave his side the win.


A beautiful intercept try from Lewis Warner started Kowloon’s turnaround and closed Club’s lead to 20-8 before Johnston’s late strikes.  Johnston’s success off the tee came on a day when Club’s metronomic kicker Glyn Hughes was uncharacteristically off target, missing all of his shots at goal.


Despite the let-off, HKFC will be concerned at nearly conceding a comfortable lead for a second week running, while Kowloon will be kicking itself for leaving a second early season win on the table after an opening round bonus point loss to Valley.


With every team capable of beating each other, the Saxo Markets Premiership battle is set to heat up before the winter break.