Hong Kong make it tough for Russia before conceding series
Performance shows local side would not be out of place playing in a second-tier World Cup
Hong Kong showed they would not be out of place if a second-tier World Cup was established as they ran Russia ragged before losing 39-27 to give the visitors a clean sweep of the two-test series and the Ustinov Cup at Hong Kong Football Club on Saturday.
For 10 magnificent minutes, early in the second half, Hong Kong's dangerous backs showed what damage they could do if they had enough possession as they ran in three spectacular tries to come within two points of Russia, who had led 29-10 at half-time. Sadly that comeback couldn't last, not when Hong Kong were living off scraps.
But that passage of play, with tries to Rowan Varty, Max Woodward and Tom McQueen, has infused self-belief into the team with stand-in captain Paul Dwyer, who had a towering performance, believing that Hong Kong wouldn't just be making up numbers if a World Cup for teams ranked below 20 was held as has been suggested.
"We showed we can match teams ranked like us where things can go either way. It is about the bounce of the ball. We controlled the game for long periods like they did and we are disappointed we didn't get the result. Our performance has stepped up, ultimately," said Dwyer.
But Hong Kong's control was tenuous, especially in the set pieces where Russia dominated as they did in the 31-10 first test victory last weekend. And yesterday's match mirrored the opening game with Russia off to a flier in the first half scoring four tries before Hong Kong came back strongly in the second period.
"We got a bit of a tune-up by the coaches at half-time. We simply didn't show up for long periods in the first half, but the boys dug in and came off with a flier in the second period," Dwyer said.
Hong Kong were helped with the dominant Russian scrum missing lock Andrei Garbuzov, sin-binned for a late tackle on Dwyer. Facing 14 men, Hong Kong picked their game up and began counterattacking, punting the ball downfield and making the most of their chances.
Debutant Tyler Spitz created the first opportunity when he put in a big tackle and turned over ball, which was hacked downfield and Varty won the race to the ball to score his second try in successive games. Woodward then touched down from a similar effort after Jamie Hood had punted over the defence.
McQueen, who had scored in the first half, completed his brace with a similar kick-and-chase effort to bring Hong Kong within touching distance of Russia, 29-27. McQueen said: "Two lucky ones. Happy enough but still I would rather have won."
With Hong Kong down to 14 men for 20 minutes of the second half, Bill Brant and Jack Parfitt being sin-binned, Russia reasserted their dominance but still failed to cross the line and had to be thankful for a penalty try - Hong Kong pulling down a scrum - and a penalty. "The first 20 minutes of the second half was a nightmare. All credit to Hong Kong but we showed good character to grind it out," said Russia captain Vasily Artemyev.
In the earlier match-up, Racing Metro 92 turned on the style and with typical Gallic flair ran in 12 tries to defeat the Natixis HKFC President’s XV 78-12 in the second edition of the Natixis Cup.
A large crowd at HKFC witnessed some fine running rugby from the visitors and from the composite home team – drawn from the best players in the Hong Kong Premiership as well as two players, lock Sam Shum Shu-wa and Ho Choi, from the fast-developing local Tin Shui Wai outfit – with Borrelli Walsh USRC Tigers’ Sam Purves and HKCC’s Adrian Griffiths scoring two memorable tries.
“The physicality and intensity was from another level and just imagine the two local boys coming from Tin Shui Wai – what a wonderful experience it would have been for them. Matches like this are what make rugby in Hong Kong unique,” West added.
Taking full advantage of the two-week break in the French Top 14 League due to the international test window, Racing Metro 92 arrived in Hong Kong on a working holiday and have been training all week before Saturday’s encounter.
But it was the home team who created the first scoring opportunity, with Natixis HKFC centre Gavin Hadley neatly threading a grubber from inside his own 22 before a kind bounce allowed him to pick and run. A nice interchange of passes with winger Vern Parkes nearly finished in a try for Hadley.
Minutes later the home team got their second chance to score, this time skipper and Valley flanker Tom Lamboley found himself in the clear but dropped the ball with the try-line in front of him.
“We went out there trying to prove that we are not a rugby backwater and I think we did enough to do that” said West. “I told our captain Tom (Lamboley) if he had scored the first try the whole game would have changed.”
Surprisingly, the first two came not from Racing’s flying backs but from their equally mobile front-rowers – props Walter Demaison and Eddy Ben Arous crossing over after long-range efforts.
Hooker Camille Chat showed how mobile front-row forwards are in the modern game when in the second-half he burst clear of the HKFC defence and ran 60 metres only to be cut down short of the line.
It was an unadulterated exhibition of running rugby, aided by the fact that scrums were rarely contested.
“We asked for that as we hadn’t played on this kind of [artificial] surface before and their boys are not professional,” said Racing Metro captain for the day Francois Van Der Merwe.