At this time of year rugby seems to be on everybody’s mind, not least with the 40th anniversary of the Hong Kong Sevens just around the corner. But looming even closer following Saturday’s climax to the HKRFU Premiership regular season are the Grand Championships. In the five seasons I have been in Hong Kong the quality of the game played in our top-flight league has risen exponentially. When you consider that in my first season at the helm of Leighton Asia HKCC we were wheeling out the likes of HKRFU secretary Martin Kibble for a first 15 game, so I’m sure you can appreciate how far the level of competition has grown! Players with considerable rugby pedigree – both from overseas and here in Hong Kong – can now be seen in action every week during the season. Our top teams are guided by coaches who are no less experienced, with veterans of the Rugby World Cup and elite northern and southern hemisphere leagues. The quality of our domestic Premiership, combined with the full-time influence of the sevens players, has unquestionably strengthened the pool of players we have to pick from at Hong Kong national level The result of this growth is a product that, aside from Japan’s fully established professional competition, is easily the best performance league in Asia. This season we have again witnessed a climb in quality with all of the teams packed with talented players. Previous eras of two teams dominating the silverware with the rest battling for scraps seem to be behind us forever, with all six teams in the Premiership genuinely capable of beating each other on their day. Borrelli Walsh USRC Tigers can count themselves unlucky to have finished sixth for a second successive season. Their squad strength was much improved from the previous campaign and but for a few tough calls, the odd bad bounce and failure to convert early pressure, their story could have been much different. If they can retain the bulk of this season’s squad and further develop the likes of Jack Capon, Chris Maize and Calvin Hunter, who are all barely 20 years of age, Tigers should be in a strong position to climb the charts next year. Abacus Kowloon, who in previous seasons have enjoyed league success, have also been unfortunate this season with their squad decimated by injury. Long-term absentees Chris McAdam and Adam Dehaty have been tough holes to fill and while their pack has been one of the most abrasive in the league, results have been hard to come by. That said they are in good hands with European Rugby Cup and English Premiership winners James Brooks and Mark McMillan as part of the coaching team. With their strong club culture, I expect Kowloon to be back to winning ways in no time. Natixis HKFC, by their own standards have experienced two lean seasons, but with the securing of fourth place in the league Grand Championship success is still on the cards for the men from Sports Road. While they face a tough semi-final prospect travelling to Aberdeen to face league champions HKCC, HKFC are well stocked with international experience as well as pocket-rocket Matt Worley, I wouldn’t rule them out just yet. Over the past 10 years Societe Generale Valley have dominated the Grand Championship with a phenomenal record. While league form has been somewhat inconsistent this season, the Valley juggernaut will certainly have an eye on a third Grand Final crown in as many years. With a squad packed with Hong Kong sevens and fifteens players – all under the watchful eye of experienced coach Jack Isaacs – Valley will surely be favourites leading into the playoffs. It would be somewhat patronising to say Bloomberg Hong Kong Scottish have been the surprise package this year – especially when you look at the talent in their squad, the experience of their coaching team, and the many smart strategic thinkers on the club’s committee. So it is no surprise to see Scottish finish at the business end of the stadnings. And they’ll be rubbing their hands at the prospect of taking on reigning Grand Champions Valley in the semis. If they can get through that it would be tough to bet against a first playoffs crown for the Scots. After several years in the wilderness, HKCC have backed up last season’s Premiership success with another league title this year. Having not won a dime for seven long seasons, two titles in two years is credit to the squad and new head coach Deacon Manu. Being valiant losers in the last two playoffs finals will also be something the Cricketers will be desperate to remedy, and if previous season’s form is anything to go by a Valley versus HKCC final is on the cards. For many of the players the Grand Championship is far from the end of their rugby season with the new Asian Rugby Championship kicking off in April. The quality of our domestic Premiership, combined with the full-time influence of the sevens players, has unquestionably strengthened the pool of players we have to pick from at Hong Kong national level. If we can avoid injuries between now and our first squad session, we will be in a strong position to mount a serious run at the newly formatted ARFU competition this spring.