Perfect Bears pile on pressure against Hong Kong to capture inaugural Cup of Nations title
Hong Kong and Russia each climb one place in World Rugby rankings after strong showings in four-test competition
Russia overcame a resilient Hong Kong defensive effort at HKFC on Saturday to win their third successive tour test match and claim the inaugural four-team Hong Kong Cup of Nations in convincing style.
Both teams were rewarded with moves up the World Rugby global rankings - Russia from 22nd to 21st place and Hong Kong from 24th to 23rd.
Hong Kong were first to get on the scoreboard Saturday through a penalty from fly-half Ben Rimene in the third minute, but Russia had the superior start in the title-deciding match-up and dominated the forward exchanges from the outset.
Portugal had overwhelmed Zimbabwe 36-11 earlier in the day in a fast-paced battle for third place, but the showpiece match between Hong Kong and Russia was what everyone had been waiting for. And it delivered.
“It was two really evenly matched teams out there but we started really well,” said Russia captain Vasily Artemyev. “We strung together eight or 10 phases from the outset which led to our first try.”
Centre Igor Galinovsky crossed over to get the Bears off to a hot start after a sustained period of pressure. Fly-half Sergey Yanyushkin’s conversion was wide – one of his rare misses during the game – but Russia took a 5-3 lead and from that moment they kept the hosts on the back foot.
A period of heavy pressure led to Hong Kong conceding two more early penalties – and as Yanyushkin quickly discovered his aim and distance Russia extended their lead to 11-3.
Hong Kong coach Andy Hall made two substitutions to steady the ship, replacing hooker Alex Harris and lock Paul Dwyer with Jamie Tsang Hon-man and Adrian Griffiths and, for a short while, the tactic worked.
“Our set piece didn't function early on and our line-out and scrum was a bit wobbly,” said Hall.“If you can’t get the set piece right against a team like Russia, things are going to be difficult, so we made a few tactical substitutions early on in an attempt to be a bit more pro-active.”
A positive period of play rewarded Hong Kong with a second penalty, duly converted by Rimene, and by half-time the hosts had slashed the margin to two points with three more points from the Valley pivot.
But Russia changed tactics after the break, mounting a sustained period of pressure in Hong Kong’s half with some solid tactical kicking that annoyed the fans but kept the hosts penned in for most of the final 40 minutes.
It was a tactic which worked brilliantly, with Russia pressuring Hong Kong’s wings with high balls and forcing the defence into conceding a 44th-minute wide penalty which Yanushkin slotted with ease.
With their foot firmly on the accelerator Russia followed up four minutes later with a rapid-fire try from skipper Artemyev. And with Yanushkin’s first conversion of the match, the Bears took a commanding 21-9 lead.
Hong Kong managed only one penalty in reply from the perfect Rimene, but the hosts could not close the gap any further and never threatened for the remainder of the match.
Russia finished well with Yanushkin adding a drop-goal in the 70th minute, followed by a try from reserve back Anton Sychev four minutes later. Yanushkin’s second conversion gave him 14 points on the day and brought Russia’s final margin of victory to 31-12.
“In the second half, we did well to put the ball behind their wingers. Once we got a bit of a lead, we knew Hong Kong would have to chase the game and the pressure would be on them, which led to a few mistakes,” Artemyev said.
Saturday’s triumph was the Europeans third consecutive victory in Hong Kong after they swept the hosts twice in last year’s two-match Ustinov Cup series.
“It was definitely tougher than last year,” said Artemyev. “Hong Kong are much improved, but we have improved as well. We were probably a bit more clinical but it was very evenly matched.“We knew coming in that Hong Kong would be our toughest opponent and that was definitely the case.”
Hong Kong coach Hall also praised the Hong Kong effort. “Defensively, we were heroic,” he said. “But without that parity up front we couldn’t close the gap.
"It’s a bit disappointing, but this has been a great competition for us. We need to be playing at this intensity more and more often, and when we do, we will win more of these than we lose.”
Portugal took third place after beating Zimbabwe 36-11, despite a strong start by the African side who took a 3-0 lead in the 20th minute after a penalty from fly-half Tichafara Makwanya. But Portugal leveled the scores with a penalty moments later and from there they didn’t look back.
Russia topped the Hong Kong Cup of Nations table on 13 points, followed by Hong Kong on nine and Portugal on six points after collecting their second bonus-point in two games. Winless, Zimbabwe finished in fourth.