Hong Kong show fighting spirit
After a disappointing start against Zimbabwe, Varty & Co get past Georgia and Scotland to boost hopes of earning core-team status
Scotland's bravehearts were undone by an even braver Hong Kong, who yesterday stated their intent of becoming a core team in the HSBC Sevens World Series next season by knocking off the top seeds in the qualifying tournament at the London Sevens by the narrowest of margins.
A brace of tries from winger Salom Yiu Kam-shing spurred Hong Kong to a superb 20-19 victory in their final pool game. It was the perfect ending to an otherwise patchy performance in defeat to Zimbabwe and victory over Georgia.
"This win over the No 1 seeds will raise our confidence level," said Hong Kong head coach Dai Rees. "But it changes nothing, we still have to come out [today] and perform."
And first-up will be Spain, a core team this season who were relegated for finishing in the bottom three of the World Series.
Hong Kong finished fourth in the rankings after yesterday's round-robin competition, while Spain placed fifth.
Hong Kong's high expectations will have been massively boosted by the win over Scotland on a rabbit-warren of a pitch described as a "disgraceful plough field" by Hong Kong Rugby Football Union chairman Trevor Gregory.
This tournament has taken on an "Us v Them" tone with organisers separating the 12 teams in the top tier and the eight teams in the qualifiers into two categories. Not only have the two groups been segregated as far as hotels go, Hong Kong and the rest of the core-team hopefuls were also accommodated on an uneven outside pitch for two of their three games each.
But Hong Kong made light of the poor conditions as they overturned a 10-19 deficit against Scotland having previously come up trumps inside the confines of a packed Twickenham Stadium (72,000 of the 82,000 seats were filled) when they saw off a pesky challenge from Georgia, 17-12.
"It is an absolute disgrace that the majority of the qualifying matches were played on a plough field," said Gregory. "This pitch is a shocker and I can't believe they are using it for a World Series tournament."
Hong Kong kicked off the action on a cold and grey day on a disappointing note, going down 12-7 to Zimbabwe, whose superior strength at the ruck and contact situations proved to be the difference between the two sides.
It was more comfortable against Georgia as Hong Kong sped to a 17-0 lead at the break with skipper Rowan Varty settling nerves with a 50-metre burst for an early try. Alex McQueen added a brace and Hong Kong were coasting along but then went off the boil in the second half to allow Georgia to sneak in two tries. Still, Hong Kong held on for the victory.
"We had two very good performances for 10 minutes in the first two games, but we need to extend it to a full 14 minutes now," said Rees.
And they did it with a complete performance against Scotland. Although trailing 14-5 at the break, Hong Kong had enjoyed most of the possession, only conceding two breakaway tries. Tom McQueen added a second try to the one scored by Varty in the first half to cut the deficit before winger Yiu outpaced the Scottish defence twice to put the icing on a solid display.
"The good thing is that we are gradually building and getting better and the bottom line is that we have to come out and play well [today]," Rees said.
Hong Kong can draw inspiration from their final-day performance at the Hong Kong Sevens this year when they defeated Argentina and the United States, both core teams, to reach the Bowl final against England.
A repeat performance will be enough to make Hong Kong the first Asian side to become a core team on the World Series.
The winners of each semi-final today will earn their tickets to core-team status and their involvement at the London Sevens will end there. The third-place-play-off between the two losing semi-finalists for the last berth will be the "finale".