01 2月 2020

Premiership champions Natixis HKFC and Societe General Valley advanced to next Saturday’s Saxo Markets Grand Championship, (Kings Park, 19.30), after dispatching their semi final opponents in a double header today at Hong Kong Football Club.  


In matches played behind closed doors due to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, Valley beat Bloomberg HK Scottish 34-7, while HKFC won 21-6 over Herbert Smith Freehills HKU Sandy Bay. That sets the stage for a classic Hong Kong rugby rivalry meeting in the grand final as the city’s oldest clubs do battle once again following Club’s victory in the Premiership title decider a fortnight ago.


The Valley-Scottish semi was a tightly contested affair with just three points on the board after the first half hour, those from Valley wing Kevin Field who struck his first penalty in the 4th minute. Flanker Carl Marks scored an important try at the half hour marker as Valley converted an attacking lineout close to the line with Fields’ conversion bringing the margin to ten points.


Shortly after, Scottish winger Conor Hartley was shown a yellow card for a high tackle, leaving the challengers a man down for the rest of the half. Valley capitalised before the break when scrumhalf Ruan Duplooy collected the ball from the back of a ruck a metre out from the line before crossing over with a sniping run to lead 17-0.


Valley broke the game open in the second half, scoring twice in the third quarter with hooker Hunter Prescott collecting the first points of the half after steering a textbook rolling maul over the line to push the score to 22-0.  


Reserve back Quintus Kilbourn replied superbly when he entered the line at the perfect moment before weaving through traffic to score Scottish’s first points with his first touch of the ball. Gregor McNeish’s conversion brought the score to 22-7.


In a demoralising show of strength, Valley turned over Scottish at the re-start and staged a series of attacks that ultimately created space for Peni Latu to score untouched to bring their lead to 27-7. Man of the match candidate Duplooy added his second on the hour marker to bring the final to 34-7 in an impressive all-round performance for Valley who return to the Grand Championship for the first time since their five-time finals win streak was broken in 2018/19.


For Club, the treble is now the mantra as they look to add Grand Champions to their resume of Premiership Challenge Trophy and Premiership title winners. Feared for its offensive prowess, HKFC toppled Valley with an impressive defensive effort in the Premiership decider, and once again earned victory from the outside in against Sandy Bay.


Both sides obviously remembered last year’s 31-10 upset at Sports Road, adding spice to an occasion already destined to provide fireworks. The match largely lived up to its billing as both outfits threw everything at each other for an exciting 80 minutes.


Last year, Sandy Bay blitzed Club with 19 points in the first 40, and they looked to do the same this time around. Initially it looked as if their bid to bury Club early would work with their first opportunity coming 90 seconds in after the visitors drove deep behind the fierce running of Luke van der Smit, Ben Davey and Mark Prior.


On this occasion, Prior was felled and the ball dislodged by a textbook tackle from Club flanker Hugh McCormick-Houton with the line begging. That pattern of intense effort and available, yet untapped, opportunity would continue for Sandy Bay, who could only muster three points in the first half.


Despite Sandy Bay’s max pressure game and the increasing wave of attacks, Club never looked ruffled as they managed to contain Sandy Bay’s big ball carrying forwards behind an impressive team-wide defensive effort.  


While Club had little of the attack in the first half, they did have Glyn Hughes. The fly half made the most of the hosts’ scant forays early on to give Club a 6-0 lead from two penalties in the first quarter. And while Club’s attack may have been dormant for most of the proceedings, it was not in hibernation as they ultimately proved with tries in either half.


Playmaking fullback Nate De Thierry was involved in both, setting up the first after a well-weighted chip for wing Max Denmark. The Hong Kong sevens star was exciting in his limited opportunities with the ball today and on this occasion did well to recover from an awkward bounce to make positive short ground and bring the attack to a metre short of the line. Scrumhalf Jamie Lauder recycled the ball after Denmark was tackled for the first try with ten minutes left in the half.


Sandy Bay finished with another impressive passage of play, dominating the late stages of the half to set-up a scoring opportunity on Club’s 22 metres late. They opted for the penalty and Jack Metters made this one count, after missing an earlier chance, to close the gap to 13-3.


Sandy Bay was even more impressive after the break as they raised their intensity to another level. Sadly for the defending grand champions, the effort - while unimpeachable - was undermined by a lack of execution.


Sandy Bay could only show three further points after another massive period of attack that generated numerous try-line chances and chewed up most of the third quarter. The points came from winger Iwan Phillips, who closed the gap to a converted try at 13-6 to keep Sandy Bay in with a chance entering the final quarter.


With the game teetering in the balance, Club’s attack exploded into life once again as centre Ben Axten-Burrett created and finished a break against the run of play. He linked up smartly with De Thierry down the left hand side and the talented Hong Kong fullback’s footwork and vision on the touchline was impeccable as he ushered the ball back to Axten-Burrett for the try in the corner as Club pushed the lead back to multiple scores with 14 minutes left.


Sandy Bay never stopped punching at the line, taking play into Club territory twice more but again failed to convert chances into points, and a final Hughes penalty closed the curtains, 21-6.


Sandy Bay coach Brett Wilkinson commended his player’s efforts today and across the season: “I’m proud of all of the players for their efforts today and throughout the season. It was a tough game that reflects the season we’ve had. The story of our season is in those missed opportunities.


“Early in the second half, we created a lot of opportunities and had a chance to swing it our way, but we couldn’t convert and that has been the story of our season. But we reached a semi final for a second straight year, which was a target and shows that our consistency has improved a bit.


“The effort can’t be faulted but the results didn't go our way today, that’s sport,” he added.