Hong Kong scrape past Chile to move closer to World Series dream
Only objective is to qualify for the World Series, says Salom Yiu
Two games left, one target to achieve – this is the mantra of top try-scorer Salom Yiu Kam-shing, and the rest of Hong Kong, as they gingerly moved closer towards becoming the first Asian team to play in the IRB Sevens World Series on Saturday.
Hong Kong are two steps away from a core-team berth after booking their place in the semi-finals of the qualifying tournament with a nerve-wracking 10-7 win over Chile in their first game in the knockout stage before 39,450 fans on Saturday night.
"We have two games left, not one. Make sure you say that for we only have one target - to play in the World Series," said local speedster Yiu, who has emerged as the leading try-scorer for Hong Kong after adding two more to his opening day's tally of three to take his account to five.
Hong Kong meet Italy first up in the semi-finals on Sunday and will be encouraged by their 19-0 victory over them in their final pool game on Saturday. Win this match and Hong Kong are most likely to encounter favourites Japan in the final - that is unless the Asian champions slip up against Russia in the other semi-final.
"We are on track, we are in the semi-finals," said Hong Kong head coach Gareth Baber. "We have beaten them once and we will go out and do it again."
Yet, for seven anxious minutes in the second half against Chile, it seemed as if Hong Kong would be derailed by the spirited South Americans, who came back strongly from being 10-0 down at half-time to reduce the deficit to just three points with a try inside the first minute of the second period.
It was nail-biting stuff as Hong Kong's defence valiantly held on.
"It was a tight game," said Hong Kong captain Jamie Hood. "Chile are a big physical side who really contest the breakdown, and you could tell there was a lot at stake.
"There is a place in the World Series up for grabs. We're all scrapping for every ball.
"Teams like Chile are giving 110 per cent and we have to match them. Now we've got to recover, assess where we are as far as our injury situation, then go out tomorrow and give it our all."
On the opening day, Chile had proved their credentials when they pushed Zimbabwe and Russia close, and it came as no surprise to Baber that Hong Kong had to fight.
"They are a good side. You don't get into this stage of the tournament being mugs," Baber said. "They also played good wet-weather rugby and they were a challenge at the contact area where we had to fight for it.
"But I'm not losing sight that we showed a great deal of character. We had a tremendous performance this morning [against Italy], and will be hoping to replicate it tomorrow," said Baber, who was encouraged by his team's grit in defence.
But lying in wait will be an Italian side who seem to be enjoying the wet conditions with English coach and former sevens star Andy Vilk promising his side will learn from their earlier defeat by Hong Kong.
"My initial target was to reach the quarter-finals and now finding ourselves in the semis is a pleasant outcome and beyond all expectations," said Vilk, part of the England team who last won the Cup championship in Hong Kong in 2006.
"We learned from that loss to Hong Kong and now we will relish the challenge of meeting the home team again," Vilk said.
Italy needed a try in sudden death to get past Zimbabwe, 17-12, in the quarter-finals.
Vilk, who has been in charge of Italy since last September, said he had to tell his players before sudden death began that one try would be enough to win them a place in the semi-finals. And they delivered.
Italy look the sort of a team still coming to grips with sevens, but if they had learned from the chastening defeat by Hong Kong, and then still managed to reach the semis, it shows they will be a threat.
But Baber was confident Hong Kong, one man down with forward Kwok Ka-chun injured, had enough nous to get past Italy again. Japan in the final will be another issue.