Scramble for second goes down to the wire in HKRU Premiership
The battle for runners-up spot in the 2015-16 HKRU Premiership will be settled Saturday on the last match day of the league season when third-ranked Natixis HKFC host second-placed Leighton Asia HKCC.
By the end of the day the Grand Championship play-offs picture will be set. The top two teams in the league – champions Societe Generale Valley and the winners of the Sports Road showdown – will enjoy a first-round bye while the remaining Premiership sides must compete in a knockout competition to determine the other two semi-finalists.
HKCC enter the match in sole command of second place on 41 points trailed by HKFC with 37. HKFC require a bonus-point win with four tries or more; they must also prevent the Cricketers from securing a bonus point of their own.
Should the teams be level after the match, second place will be determined by point-difference. As they stand, HKCC are on +40 and HKFC +23. As an indication of Valley’s superiority this season, their point-difference is +212.
HKCC will welcome the return of talismanic captain Ben Roberts from a second injury lay-off this season. The Welsh hooker will pack down alongside props Jack Nielson and James Cooper in the front row, while locks Paul Dwyer and Jack Delaforce complete the tight five with Adrian Griffiths, Matt Lamming and Marcus Slade at number eight rounding out the pack.
With Tom Marshall at scrum-half, Alex McQueen at outside centre and Rowan Varty and Jamie Robinson on the wings, HKCC boast 10 Hong Kong internationals in their starting 15 this weekend – a fact about which HKFC coach Phil Bailey is all too aware.
“They have the form, they have the players and it will be a tough match for us,” he said. “They’re strong in the scrum and at the line-out, and they show disciplined quality in all of their set pieces. They stick to their game for the 80 minutes.
“But we have been building all season towards the kind of performance that we put out last week,” Bailey added, referring to HKFC’s nine-try 57-7 win over Borrelli Walsh USRC Tigers.
“It’s come together a little later than we had hoped, but better late than never. Finally, we’ve clicked.”HKFC will have to negate HKCC’s advantage in the forwards, but the hosts’ pack remains an area of concern with numerous injuries, particularly at the loose forward positions.
“We’re still decimated in the back-row and it seems that every time we get one player back, two more go down. Even now [Friday] two or three guys have yet to pass fitness tests for tomorrow,” said Bailey.
Fitness pending, towering Josh Afu will look to continue his solid late-season run anchoring the HKFC pack at number eight with Matthew Lamont and Pierce Mackinlay-West on the flanks. Jacob Rumball, Mitch Andrews and Ronan Donnell will man the front-row supported by Jamie McGregor and Harry Struss behind.
Backs Niall Rowark (fly-half), Charlie Higson-Smith (wing) and Jimmy Richards (fullback) are also sidelined with injuries, leaving scrum-half Jamie Hood to partner with Jamie Lauder at 10. Tom McColl and Ben Axten-Burrett line up in the centres while Gavin Hadley, Steven McCarron and Kenzo Pannell anchor the back-three.
The two sides have split their contests so far this season with HKCC winning 32-12 last month and HKFC winning 19-13 win in October.
Saturday’s other top-flight matches see runaway league champions Valley hosting Sabre Kowloon while USRC Tigers are away to Bloomberg HK Scottish. All matches kick off at 16.30.
The HKRU Grand Championship play-offs begin on 27 February with the third-placed side playing sixth and fourth playing fifth in the quarter-finals.