Premiership clubs kick-off Grand Championship with scramble for semi-final berths
The race for spots in the HKRU Grand Championship final gets under way Saturday with the start of the quarter-finals.
Men’s matches pit Natixis HKFC against Sabre Kowloon at Sports Road, while Borrelli Walsh USRC Tigers play Bloomberg HK Scottish at King’s Park. League champions Societe Generale Valley and runners-up Leighton Asia HKCC both earned first-round byes.
The seven-team women’s competition sees HKFC Ice play SCAA First Pacific CWB Phoenix, CPM Gai Wu Falcons play Kowloon and Tigers play Transact 24 Tai Po Dragons. The winners will advance to the semi-finals where undefeated league champions Valley Black Ladies will be waiting after securing a first-round bye.
The men’s game of the week sees Tigers take on HK Scottish in a rematch of the final round of the regular season and despite his side losing 24-19 in that game, Tigers coach Craig Stewart believes Saturday’s clash will come down to who best handles the pressures of the play-offs.
“It doesn’t matter who we lost to [last week]. We’re not keen to lose again,” he said. “In this league, everyone knows everyone pretty well, so it’s more about who can handle the pressure now.
“We’d consider reaching the semi-finals a pretty fair reflection of our season. We’ve put a bit of pressure on ourselves – we’ve gone from being happy to win occasionally to now being disappointed if we don’t win all the time,” Stewart added.
Scottish coach Craig Hammond accepts the challenges of repeating last weekend’s result: “Both teams have an advantage. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Last week we tripped them up in the end but [Saturday] will be completely different. It’s quarter-finals footy and the intensity will be up a level from a league match, especially with them being at home.
“We’ve struggled to put back-to-back wins together this season, so we need to focus on our own performance. We need to get our set-piece right and give our backs quality ball.”
In the women’s competition, Tigers leap-frogged perennial front-runners Gai Wu to claim runners-up spot in the league, that late surge earning them an easier route to the semi-finals as they face winless Tai Po on Saturday.
Captain Nam Ka-man, one of 10 senior national team players in the Tigers set-up, said her side are progressing well as the season goes on.
“Taking second on the last weekend of the year was a huge momentum boost. We’re more confident now and enter the Grand Championships in good form. It shows we are capable of breaking the Valley-Gai Wu stranglehold on the league,” Nam said.
“At the beginning of the year we talked about trusting each other more and keeping a positive mindset and that has shown in our performances so far, but we aren’t looking past Tai Po. Their ranking doesn’t really reflect their performances this year.
“We may try out a few different formations to see how they go and hopefully we’ll continue to perform and reach the final,” she added.
Gai Wu will look to get some late momentum of their own as they bid for their customary spot in the Grand Championship final. Their path starts with what on paper at least should be a winnable match against sixth-placed Kowloon, who collected their first win of the season last week against Tai Po.