The Paul Y Premiership came to a thrilling climax last Saturday, with champions Leighton Asia HKCC and runners-up WhichWay Valley finally separated by a single point at the end of what was the closest league competition in recent memory. Adding to the excitement was the fact that the fourth and final place in the Grand Championship play-offs was also up for grabs on the last day of regular play. Despite the adrenalin-pumping action on the pitch in this year’s top-flight league, the typical issues that plague Hong Kong rugby resurfaced – none more pressing than the issue of facilities. The final league match between HKCC and Club was supposed to be a home game for the Cricketers at Aberdeen Stadium, but it was not made available by the Leisure Cultural Services Department, forcing HKCC to play the crucial match away at Hong Kong Football Club. Fortunately, a strong and vocal HKCC crowd made their presence known on the night and helped set the stage for a decisive win in what felt like a home-crowd atmosphere. And so this Saturday, we head into the Grand Championship with top-ranked HKCC facing fourth-ranked Hong Kong Scottish and second-seeds Valley taking on Club. The winners of the semi-finals will meet for the Grand Finals on March 8 at King’s Park. Looking ahead to the competition, Scottish have been a nemesis for HKCC and have taken plenty of scalps this season. No doubt they would love to rain on the parade of the league champions. Valley, meanwhile, will be smarting from not taking the league title, while Club will want to prove a point that last Saturday’s shut-out at the hands of HKCC was an aberration. Most pundits would assume a HKCC-Valley Grand Final, but anything can happen in these knockout games, especially in a season full of parity and surprises. No one will be taking these games lightly. From my perch as the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union’s director of clubs, I think there were several factors that made the Premiership such a success this season – one of which was having Paul Y Engineering as title sponsor, which allowed for enhanced funding in promoting the league. To raise awareness and bring in new spectators, the HKRFU hosted three Super Saturdays with all of the top teams in action at the same venue. This was a resounding success and there are moves to expand the concept to the Championship and Women’s leagues next season. Internally, the HKRFU’s club coaching officer scheme is also bearing fruit. All Premiership clubs now have full-time paid coaches and administrators, a development that has markedly improved the quality of coaching. Clubs must have strong coaching programmes to retain players, and significant investments have been made in this direction. From next season, the HKRFU will increase its financial contribution to all clubs fielding 15-a-side adult teams in the league. Most Premiership clubs have also now entered into partnerships with mini and youth teams. This arrangement is a win-win, with the young players receiving higher calibre coaching support and being able to develop relationships with older players they will come to view as role models. The Premiership clubs in turn will benefit from a natural feeder system. The introduction of contracted full-time and part-time sevens players at the Hong Kong Sports Institute is adding a new level of fitness and professionalism, which is having a knock-on effect among the sevens players’ club-mates. Another development taking place is the bow-wave of players from mini to youth who are starting to come through into the under-20s and Premiership teams. At the same time top quality overseas players continue to come to Hong Kong, for work and rugby. The top clubs are focused on securing genuine long-term opportunities for players in key positions to bolster their success over the long-term. With the increasing standard of coaching and players it is also important that, at the top end, the standard of refereeing keeps pace. This issue is currently being addressed within the Hong Kong Society of RFU Referees. Continued dialogue is taking place and the expectation is that measures to spur improvement will be in place by next season. Finally, it is clear that the most vital roles of running a club generally fall on a handful of volunteer individuals. These people remain the backbone of rugby in Hong Kong and the HKRFU is working to put in place new volunteer appreciation mechanisms to recognise those individuals, together with a package of tools supplied to assist clubs with their administration.