Hong Kong celebrate a day to remember
Hong Kong have promised more than they have delivered in recent years. But yesterday everything they had hoped for materialised as they stunned Portugal and Tonga to finish second in their pool behind World Cup finalists Argentina.
An emphatic 24-7 win over Portugal, followed by a nerve-racking 14-12 victory over Tonga wasn't good enough to see them qualify for the Cup competition, but gutsy Hong Kong can take heart from a spirited performance which was rated as 'the best' by new skipper Mark Wright.
'The whole day has been brilliant. The boys have come together extremely well and we just exploded on the pitch. This has been the best day in sevens I have been involved in,' said an overjoyed Wright.
Brought together with the aim of winning a medal at the East Asian Games in December and next year's Asian Games, Hong Kong showed the world - and the International Rugby Board - they are worthy of more exposure on the international stage.
True grit and superb defence won Hong Kong the day. They knocked out Portugal with an emphatic four-try performance and followed it up with an equally determined display against a physical Tongan side to book a place in the Plate quarter-finals, where they will meet Canada.
'We knew Tonga would be physical, but we put a lot of emphasis on our defence and it paid off. Good defence won the day,' Wright said as his team signed autographs for their screaming fans.
Leading 14-12 against Tonga, and with just seconds on the clock, a full house erupted into a countdown. When Hong Kong won a scrum five metres from their line, and Kenzo Pannell booted the ball into the stands, the crowd went delirious.
'The crowd was fantastic, they lifted us an extra notch. You can hear it when you break through, you can hear it when you make a tackle,' said Wright. 'A lot of people thought we would struggle in our group, but we knew if we stayed focused, we could get a result.'
Hong Kong coach Rodney McIntosh said: 'That was a performance to be very proud of. We have worked on our defence and re-starts, our two deficiencies at the World Cup. I knew we would be better here because of that experience.
'I expected us to be delivering performances like this,' McIntosh said.
Hong Kong began the day by overwhelming Portugal, who a few months ago had qualified for the World Cup as the European champions, even ahead of Wales, the eventual winners.
Led by man-of-the-match Wright, Hong Kong ran in four tries. In the first seven minutes, Portugal never had a look in, and they only managed to encroach into Hong Kong territory twice in the second half.
Tries from Tom McQueen, Kenzo Pannell, Anthony Haynes and Keith Robertson paved the way for a well-deserved victory.
Hong Kong showed they are a dangerous side with ball in hand, and Wright ensured they had plenty of it as he ruled the rucks and breakdowns, and along with Haynes and Mark Goosen dominated the contact areas.
Tonga were tougher. Two tries either side of half-time from Haynes and Rowan Varty backed up with some superb tackling saw Tonga chasing the game. Robertson was the hero, pulling off three superb try-saving tackles.
'The leading guys stepped up. Mark Wright had a stormer, Keith Robertson was excellent, Rowan Varty was good, Kenzo Pannel was accurate, and Tom McQueen played well. It was a good team effort, and the bench had impact,' McIntosh said.