HKRU Premiership preview: Sandy Bay relishing ‘underdog’ status after grim season and club change
New name and a new strip for former Cricket Club side could boost team heading into inaugural campaign and help wash away past failure, says coach
Coach Brett Wilkinson does not mince words when describing his team’s previous season in the Hong Kong Men’s Premiership. “Horrible.”
Luckily his squad, who finished with a record of one win and 14 defeats in the league during the 2017-18 season, will get a chance to start afresh.
The side will no longer play under the Hong Kong Cricket Club banner, but instead will be called the Hong Kong University Sandy Bay Rugby Football Club, linking up with the junior programme that trains out of the Aberdeen Sports Club.
Wilkinson, heading into his sophomore season as coach for the top side, said they’re drawing as many positives from last year as they can heading into their 2018-19 fixtures.
“I love that we’re underdogs and we’re not expected to win anything,” he said. “It’s a challenge that we’re looking forward to.”
General manager Grant Beuzeval, who took the job in July, said leaving the cricket club was “amicable” after 14 years.
“There were some restrictions by the cricket club by-laws that made it a little difficult,” said the New Zealand-native. “They were only able to get one sponsor which made funding a little bit more difficult.”
Beuzaval said this ultimately trickled down to recruitment and retention of players, but he did note the Premiership side is only losing two members heading into this season.
He called last season “out of character” for Wilkinson’s squad, noting it came down to untimely injuries, retirements and the “impending turmoil” that led to the squad breaking with the cricket club. He commended Wilkinson, a decorated South African player who notched 183 games for Connacht in the Pro 14, for being able to retain virtually all of his players after a dismal season.
“You’d be sympathetic to guys who might say, ‘That was awful I don’t want to go through that again’,” Beuzaval said. “But Brett’s done a great job here in moving these guys forward into the future.”
There was previously a top men’s side known as the Aberdeen Rugby Club from 1994-2004 who joined forces with the cricket club, so Beuzaval said this transition was not one of complete unfamiliarity.
He said some of the senior players had been coaching various Sandy Bay youth and mini teams for a few years, so this was the obvious landing spot for the team.
“For us, we want to wear the pride of the youth and minis section,” he said. “They’ve been running for 30 years now so it’s a bit of a leap of faith for them, too.”
This will be the first time in 66 years that a junior club will welcome a senior side into its ranks.
The Sandy Bay youth side has an estimated 850 players that will now join forces with about 200 senior players.
Despite what Beuzaval called a “wretched” season, the goal is ambitious looking forward – to win the championship in the club’s inaugural season.
“I think there’s a chance, it’s not just pie in the sky or psychological talk,” he said. “There’s some excitement in the league, there hasn’t been a new squad in quite some time. And for us, some new players are bringing in a fresh attitude so there’s going to be a lot of eyes on us.”
Last season Societe Generale Valley won their sixth consecutive Old Mutual International Men’s Premiership grand championship, trouncing Borrelli Walsh USRC Tigers, who came into the game as league winners.
The 15-week season kicks off on September 22 with a triple-header at King’s Park starting at 3pm. First up will be the Tigers taking on Kerry Hotel Kowloon Rugby, followed by Natixis HKFC versus Sandy Bay and then Valley against Bloomberg HK Scottish.
The Premiership and Premiership A leagues will be suspended for November while the Hong Kong 15-a-side national team enter camp and then head for the Rugby World Cup 2019 repechage competition alongside Canada, Germany and Kenya in Marseille, France.
There is also a new play-off format as only the top four teams will advance to the Grand Championships, down from all six last season. The Grand Championships will be played across two consecutive weekends in March on a semi-finals and finals format.
The men’s Premiership will also have a new sponsor in Saxo Capital Markets.