Boots and all

By all means use the Premiership to drive Hong Kong’s improvement, but is a six-team finals series necessary?

The current system sees every side qualify for a crack at the grand championship, meaning there is little on the line for the bottom sides as the minor round wears on

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 November, 2016, 7:42pm
UPDATED : Friday, 25 November, 2016, 7:42pm

It is clear that the HKRU Premiership is in place predominantly as a feeder for the national side as it attempts to qualify for a World Cup, and so it should be.

A healthy local competition is crucial if Hong Kong are going to develop into a side capable of securing a place at a World Cup.

The injection this weekend of five Chiefs development squad players is proof of how serious the union is about fast-tracking the development of its players via a significantly strengthened Premiership.

In town until the end of the season, the Chiefs players have been divided among Kowloon, Bloomberg HK Scottish, Natixis HKFC and Borrelli Walsh USRC Tigers to bolster those teams and, as a result, the league.

Another way in which the union aims to ensure maximum exposure to the best rugby possible is by running a six-team final series, meaning every club qualifies for a crack at the grand championship.

The throught process is that each team gets at least one knockout game in a high-intensity setting, and indeed they do.

But it seems to take away from the thrill of the minor round, despite the fact that there is also the league championship on the line, and the question remains whether or not it is the best way to create high-pressure situations.

The reality is that by a certain point of the season, the bottom sides are out of contention for the league title, meaning they’ve got little to play for until the finals begin.

Of course there is benefit to be gained by finishing higher on the ladder, but the week off gained by finishing in the top-two is the only real thing on the line outside of the league championship.

Take Kowloon and Tigers for example. Both have won only two games this season and, while they have been far from disgraced in their losses, they sit 13 points behind Societe Generale Valley and already they are effectively out of the running for the league title.

That means these teams have got somewhere in the vicinity of three months to prepare for a crack at the grand championship in the knowledge that regardless of how many games they win, they qualify anyhow.

Wouldn’t it be better if they had to fight for a top-four spot? Would this not generate many more ‘must-win’ clashes than one extra week of finals can offer?

In such a small competition, if it was reduced to a top-four finals system there would no doubt be any number of games after Christmas that had a bearing on final table positions.

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Players would get their high intensity exposure in these games as they attempted to qualify for the finals.

There are already coaches who are focussing on having their side right post-Christmas to make a timed run at glory, rather than going hell for leather to put wins on the board now.

That surely isn’t good for the competition?

Of course, every coach will say they are trying to win every game and no doubt they are, but for those not in the hunt for the league championship there is no real need to win and this in itself doesn’t foster the highest level of competition possible.

Obviously, a team won’t simply show up in the finals and start winning, but the current structure allows the bottom sides to slowly build momentum rather than having to find a way to win now.

While it is unlikely that a team could come from last to win the grand championship, the fact that the opportunity is there takes a little shine off the trophy.

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Teams should have to earn the right to compete for it across the season and the chance to feature in the finals should be won, not expected.

At a time when just about everything is geared towards benefitting the national side, surely reducing the finals to a top-four is one way of ensuring there is still plenty of meaning in the competition for those not in the running for Hong Kong selection, without losing the coveted big matches.

And if you want to make sure the bottom two sides don’t get short changed, have them play off for some sort of reverse grand championship – no doubt that would create a highly competitive environment.