Matches can turn in moments and Richard Hooper exemplified that last night, turning HSBC Penguins from likely losers to definite 21-14 winners in the last minute of the GFI HKFC Tens final last night.
The Manly winger, whose younger brother Michael has made his way into the Australia national team over the last year, showed that talent runs in the family with two game-defining interventions against ULR Samurai International at the Hong Kong Football Club.
With the match tied at 14-14 and seemingly set for extra time, Hooper first threw himself into a last-ditch tackle to prevent Samurai going over right on the touch line. Moments later, teammate James Lightfoot-Brown burst clear on a 50-metre-plus run and, with the opposition closing in, launched a speculative kick towards the end zone, where Hooper pounced on it, having outpaced the Samurai defence with his last gasp of breath. Twenty-three seconds later, the whistle blew on a pulsating, superbly contested final between two of the world's most respected touring sides.
"Get me off the field, I'm buggered, absolutely blowing," was Hooper's reaction when asked how he felt immediately afterwards. "I can't stop smiling.
"I didn't want it to go to extra time. I knew I couldn't last another 10 minutes, and to seal it at the end like that is pretty special. James is a classy player, I knew he'd try to get the ball to me somehow and it couldn't have worked out better.
"The tackle before, I just wanted to make sure we didn't lose that way, it was a last-ditch effort and we got there in the end."
The Penguins were established in 1959, but this was one of the few tournaments they had not won. Like Samurai, it was their seventh attempt.
Manager Craig Brown admitted it was like the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle after they beat last year's winners BGC APB All Stars and Cobra, first and fourth seeds, on their way to the final.
"I've just got off the phone with Alan Wright, the founder of the Penguins in London and I think he'll be doing cartwheels down St James's. Not bad for an 83-year-old," said Brown, whose team was a blend of mainly Australian and Kiwi talent, plus England Sevens players Lightfoot-Brown and Chris Brightwell. Former Scotland A hooker Andrew Kelly was also part of the squad, capping a fine few weeks after he lifted Hong Kong's Grand Championship with Valley this month.
"That finish was just surreal," added Brown.
"We were watching what was happening in the corner and saying what do we do from here … they got it wide and James Lightfoot-Brown, who's been outstanding, came up with that, put the kick across and we had Richard Hooper gassing it up the middle to just beat the Fijian. It was unbelievable."
Samurai had the nominally easier path to the final, beating fifth seeds Hill and Associates Scottish Barbarians and seventh seeds Tradition YCAC. They went down early in the final as Dylan Sigg went over, before Paula Tikomainaivalu got the break off a bouncing ball to level for Samurai's almost entirely Fijian side (they had a token Aussie, perhaps to keep that "International" tag).
Former Hong Kong scrum-half John GbendaCharles put the Penguins ahead again after good work from Sigg, but Kelemedi Bola levelled on half-time after bursting clear from the base of a scrum; no-one could find the edge in the second half, until Hooper's decisive double intervention.
The APBs crushed Barbarians 41-0 in the Plate final with four tries from tournament top-scorer Joe Lilidamu, a 23-year-old Fijian who plays for and studies at Ryutsu Keizai University in Japan.
He scored 10 tries during the tournament.
"He was great. Obviously we lost [last year's star] Nemani Nadolo and Nemani suggested we pick this kid, and you can see why. He's a great talent and he's only young - he's probably made a name for himself now," said coach Tana Umaga.
The All Black great added that he would love to come back next year if invited, but admitted the APBs would have to raise their game after being surprised by the improvement in the standard of the competition. Elsewhere, it was Lloyd McDermott Warriors 26 Freshfields Wild Titans 12 in the Bowl final and Irish Vikings 22 Lloyds 5 in the Shield.