Top-flight clubs enter final stage of fight for ‘a week off’ ahead of Grand Championship
The season-ending play-offs don’t kick-off for another few weeks but many teams in the HKRU Premiership and HKRU Women’s Premiership are fighting like the Grand Championship has already started.
With the obvious exception of men’s champions Societe Generale Valley and runaway women’s leaders Valley Black Ladies, those teams in the frame to secure second place in the standings have a round of must-win matches on Saturday.
For the six HKRU Premiership sides, that coveted runners-up spot means a bye straight through to the Grand Championship semi-finals – and with it an extra week of recovery time after what has been a bruising 2015-16 season.
The bottom four men’s teams enter a knockout quarter-final to determine which two sides advance to meet Valley and the league runners-up in the Grand Championship semis.
The men’s battle for second is, in essence, a two-horse race behind Valley who have 54 points, with Leighton Asia HKCC (37) ahead of third-placed Natixis HKFC (32), followed by Borrelli Walsh USRC Tigers (27), Bloomberg HK Scottish (20) and Sabre Kowloon (18).
Valley host HK Scottish on Saturday afternoon while among the teams battling for second spot HKCC travel to King’s Park to face Kowloon and HKFC host USRC Tigers at Sports Road.
Club are the only team to have beaten Valley this season and coach Phil Bailey is looking to build on that 20-17 home triumph from two weeks ago.
“This is another important game for us,” Bailey said Friday. “The result [this weekend] will help clarify how it all comes out in the wash. We have aspirations to finish second and get a week off, otherwise we will have to leave our fate up to other teams.”
While Bailey admitted he has researched this weekend’s opposition, he said his HKFC players will be “focused on our own game”, adding that he expects it to “be a fast game, especially if the good weather holds”.
As has been the case for most of the season, HKFC were still working Friday to confirm a starting line-up because of numerous injuries.
“We’re still struggling to have enough of our players fit. As soon as one or two are good, others seem to pick up injuries that keep them out,” said Bailey.
There is at least a glimmer of light on the forwards front with back-rowers Dan Falvey and Eddie Botha both fit after the holiday break. Falvey, especially, is coming off a lengthy injury.
Tigers are nearing the end of their most successful league season in three years and coach Craig Stewart is intent on focusing his side for the play-offs.
“Like all of the clubs, we’re looking towards the end of the season now, starting with the quarter-finals,” he said, adding that he expects all the clubs to raise their game this weekend with the Grand Championship looming.
“Moving into this period the level of rugby will increase. All teams are working to build momentum, hitting that path into the quarter-finals, semi-finals and hopefully the final.“This game against Football Club is important as we go into the next couple of weeks. We’re pretty happy with our attack. We’ve found a way to attack that suits us, but as the competition becomes more intense we need to be a lot sharper defensively.”
Tigers prop Dan Barlow has been ruled out of the match through with injury, while Calvin Hunter will start from the bench after not being able to fully train this week. But centre Braam Gerber has returned to playing fitness and adds to the Tigers options.
Leighton Asia Hong Kong Cricket Club will travel to Kings Park to face off with Sabre Kowloon tomorrow at 16.30. It will be the second consecutive meeting for the two-sides after they met last week to fulfill a previously scheduled fixture that was rained out in round 8. HKCC ultimately emerged victorious from that delayed contest, winning 38-15, but will now be called upon to replicate that result if they are to keep their hopes of a runners-up league finish intact.
In the seven-team HKRU Women’s Premiership first place is all that really matters at the league champions are the only side to win a bye through to the Grand Championship semis.
The remaining six teams will contest a knockout competition to determine the other three teams in the final four.
As it stands, defending league champions Valley Black Ladies (48 points) are looking unbeatable after winning 10 of 10, with a seven-point margin and a game in hand over second-placed CPM Gai Wu Falcons (41).
Behind Gai Wu, who have a bye this weekend, sit USRC Tigers (32), HKFC Ice (22), SCAA First Pacific CWB Phoenix (14), Kowloon Ladies (0) and, on -1 after a forfeit, Transact 24 Tai Po Dragon Ladies.
With the Women’s Premiership league title looking like it will stay with Valley for another season all eyes will turn to the Grand Championship, which could be a rematch of last year’s final between the Black Ladies and Gai Wu.
And any questions about how that match-up might be settled could be answered next weekend in the 14th round of the HKRU Women’s Premiership when the two sides face off in the final league game of the 2015-16 season.