Hong Kong's local heroes savour Shield title success
Hong Kong came of age yesterday when a team comprising all locally born, or Asian Games-qualified players - barring Tim Alexander - lifted the Shield silverware with a magnificent display of rugby straight from the heart.
Wins over South Korea, Italy and Russia saw Hong Kong become the first team to etch their name on the brand new Shield. The home team have won plenty of silverware at past Sevens, but they were the first made up of players who were born or brought up in the city and came up through the grass roots.
'This is the first home-grown team to lift a trophy at the Hong Kong Sevens,' said delighted head coach Dai Rees. 'It is a magnificent achievement and we can now look forward to the Asian Games with fresh confidence.'
Hong Kong last won silverware at the Sevens in 2001 when they won the Bowl. But that team was filled with players who had been in town for only three years and playing under the IRB eligibility requirement.
As such, yesterday's victory was doubly deserved as Hong Kong defeated Russia 19-17 in the Shield final, sparking off joyous scenes.
'I know for some teams to win the Shield is not a big deal, but for us to win in Hong Kong, a tournament most of have been coming to for our whole lives is a dream come true,' said Rowan Varty, the two-try hero in the final. He also grabbed a hat-trick in the semi-finals against Italy.
Varty, who will soon be the proud owner of a Hong Kong SAR passport, called it the 'best moment in his career'. Hopefully, bigger things await him and the rest of the squad at the Asian Games.
'This result will have a huge impact on our Asian Games build-up, for 11 of the 12 guys in this team are qualified,' captain Mark Wright said. 'The key today was pressurising our opponents in defence, keeping the ball and moving it wide.
'It opened up the gaps against Italy and Russia.'
Rees said: 'It is a magnificent achievement for the guys who have worked hard for the last six months. They now realise what they can achieve.'
With Wright leading by example, Hong Kong's forwards Simon Leung Ho-yan, Anthony Haynes and Kwok Ka-chun won plenty of ball all day. Alexander, a last-minute replacement for the injured Jeff Wong, showed his inclusion was well-deserved as he kept the opposition guessing. Varty and Keith Robertson are young, but they are tried and tested warriors. They excelled not only in attack, but in defence, too, pulling off try-saving tackles time and again.
Yet the real find was debutant winger Salom Yiu Kam-shing, who settled Hong Kong's nerves in the quarter-finals against South Korea with two tries from the top drawer, then created a third for Robertson as the home team scored an emphatic 31-14 win.
South Korea had taken an early 7-0 lead before winger Yiu scored his first try at the Hong Kong Sevens from a tap penalty with the ball being worked wide. Scrum half Alexander created the initial momentum with a punt over the defence. The move broke down, but Korean hands in the ruck earned Hong Kong the penalty, which ended in Yiu scoring by the left corner flag.
From the re-start, won again by the magnificent Wright, the ball was quickly transferred to Yiu, this time on the right wing and he scored a classic winger's try, shrugging off two defenders.
Things got better when Korea's Chae Jae-young was sent to the sin bin for a dangerous tackle and Hong Kong made the most of his absence, grabbing two more tries from Varty and Robertson to put the game away.
Robertson then collected his second try when he found himself in space thanks to a superb pass from Anthony Haynes.
A hat-trick from Varty gave Hong Kong a comfortable 26-19 semi-final victory over Italy, who perhaps underestimated the sevens nous of their opponents, by kicking away valuable possession in a kick-and-chase tactic.
The Azzurri were left stunned when a speculative punt up-field was returned with interest by the impressive Yiu, who counter-attacked brilliantly with a 75-metre run. The ball was quickly recycled and with a three-man overlap, Varty did the honours.
Two quick tries by Michael Sepe and Giuseppe Sapuppo gave Italy a 12-5 lead before Hong Kong equalised when Varty shrugged off two defenders to grab his second try.
Wright gave Hong Kong the lead again soon after the break to make it 19-12 before Varty completed a well-deserved hat-trick when he was on hand to finish off a great break from Robertson. Italy scored a late try, but ran out of time to give Hong Kong a place in the final.
Hong Kong came out firing against Russia, with two quick tries from Robertson and Varty, both created by winger Tom McQueen to take a 14-0 lead. Russia scored just before half-time, but Varty's second try gave Hong Kong a 19-7 lead. Russia scored two more tries, but Hong Kong were never in danger of losing.