HK hit Friday night heights
Forget Saturday night fever. Friday nights are better, as Hong Kong discovered when they won for the first time in a long time on the opening night of a Hong Kong Sevens to take a huge step towards realising the dream of becoming a core team on the HSBC Sevens World Series next season.
A narrow 17-14 victory over South American champions Uruguay has left the home team needing just one win from their remaining two pool games - against Tonga and China - to enter the knockout phases in the qualifying tournament to unearth the three new core teams.
But what was important about the win was not only that it will give Hong Kong a huge boost of confidence and momentum, it will have ensured the sold-out crowd at Hong Kong Stadium will be fully behind their hometown heroes.
'We need the support of the crowd and this win will surely see them get right behind us,' said ecstatic skipper Rowan Varty.
'This is my seventh Hong Kong Sevens and I have never been in a team that won on the opening night. This is a great feeling, not only to win, but to hear the crowd screaming for us.'
There were 39,243 fans on opening night at the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens. It was a record crowd, and more importantly, there were 5,000 schoolchildren who were bused in free of charge as the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union continues its efforts to grow the game. They were all cheering hoarsely for Hong Kong.
The roof almost came down when winger Tom McQueen went over for the first try after a cat-and-mouse start had eaten up almost four minutes. They cheered when Keith Robertson's sleight-of-hand dummy caught the opposition on the wrong foot for the playmaker to slip through for a second try. They went into raptures when Varty engineered the winning try scored by debutant Ross Armour. It was joyous bedlam.
Uruguay were worthy opponents. A team who had defeated Argentina - a core team on the world series - a few weeks ago to win the South American championship, they showed a lot of spirit, scoring either side of the break - the second try coming after the hooter had gone. But Hong Kong had the game under control.
'We had to work hard. We dealt with the pressure of the cauldron better than they did. They are a good side but I think they were a bit overawed by the crowd,' said elated Hong Kong coach Dai Rees.
'We were either going to respond and do well, or not. We responded. We controlled the ball and the boys were so smart when down to six men. We scored the winning try with six men on,' said Rees, who was thrilled with his team's composure.
Try-scorer McQueen was sent off just after the break for a late shoulder charge. Instead of pressing the panic button, Hong Kong continued to play smart, trying to keep contact to a minimum and thus nullifying their opponents' superior physical presence.
But it wasn't just passive defence when down to six men as Hong Kong moved into attack. Flyhalf Robertson slipped an inside pass to Varty, who barrelled past three tackles before popping a pass for Armour to plant a crucial winning try.
'This is a huge first step. I can't remember when Hong Kong won on a Friday night. We always play a Wales or an England and always end up losing. But this is a fantastic way to start a tournament,' said Rees, who cautioned that Hong Kong would have to keep their feet on the ground.
'We can't get carried away with this. We need to regroup and keep it simple. We have got to win a game tomorrow to ensure a quarter-final place and we start with Tonga.
'We know plenty about Tonga and China. Johnny Zhang [China coach] told me that China have not played together for four months, but unfortunately by the time they meet us they will have had two games under their belt,' Rees said.
China began their campaign on a losing note, going down 33-12 to Tonga.
Hong Kong's only fault, if it is one, was they conceded a late try after the buzzer had gone. Rees hoped it wouldn't come back to haunt them.
'I would have preferred if we hadn't conceded that second try. It was disappointing we couldn't get the ball off the park after the buzzer went.
'I hope it doesn't come down to points difference. But if somebody said before the game that we would win by three points I would have taken that,' Rees said.
'But this is just a win and it's Friday night. I would have been reminding the guys of the same thing if we had lost. There is still a long way to go to get into the quarter-finals, something which we crave.'