Balls, beers and bagpipes. In some ways, it truly felt like rugby had made its return to Hong Kong after 274 days without action. The Saxo Markets Men’s Premiership and KPMG Women’s Premiership 2020-21 seasons got off to fiery first rounds last weekend, with reigning champions Natixis Hong Kong Football Club and Societe Generale Valley Black Ladies demonstrating that an ongoing global pandemic would not stifle their title defence campaigns. But unlike the Hong Kong Rugby Union’s (HKRU) 67 previous seasons, this edition has so far been heavily restricted by organisers as government-abiding Covid-19 “Return to Play” protocols remain critical. And rightly so, considering most of the world’s domestic rugby leagues are either still on hold or preparing for a comeback in the next few months. Whether it be in Ho Man Tin, Happy Valley or Tin Shui Wai, there were – and will be – mandatory temperature checks and mask-wearing for all personnel (except when on the pitch), a maximum of 30 health-declared, socially distant players and staff per team allowed in attendance, and reminders to limit “non-essential contact” for in-game celebrations, water-breaks and reserves benches. While no fans were allowed in on the weekend, they would be expected to do the same once eventually permitted. In the men’s league round one , Herbert Smith Freehills HKU Sandy Bay dispatched last season’s mid-table rivals Bloomberg HK Scottish 23-15 after the game was on a knife-edge at half-time. Reigning league and cup winners HKFC proved once again to be the front-runners after a gritty 33-13 win over last season’s strugglers Borrelli Walsh USRC Tigers, who look ready to spoil several parties this season. Perennial contenders Societe Generale Valley just about fought off a hungry DAC Kowloon to win 20-13, though they will be looking to avoid being bailed out by late tries in future. In the women’s league, Gai Wu Falcons appeared to put last year’s disappointing finish outside the top-two after an impressive 41-5 rout of SCAA First Pacific Causeway Bay Phoenix. Following three unanswered Gai Wu tries in the first-half, the floodgates continued to widen as stand-out full-back Abigail Chan Pak-ling sealed her hat-trick. Meanwhile, title-holders Societe Generale Valley Black Ladies made easy work of DAC Kowloon 55-5 to take a commanding lead at the top. Player-coach Bella Milo will be happy with her side’s attacking prowess after seven different players – including herself – crossed the try-line. Finally, Borrelli Walsh USRC Tigers Ladies earned a relatively tighter-margin 27-5 victory against Natixis HKFC Ice, with Nam Ka-man and Tyler Botha’s early tries dictating the rhythm. HKFC managed to pull one back in the second-half but will be disappointed to see three of their players limp off with injuries. After a successful opener for both of Hong Kong’s top domestic rugby leagues, the two big takeaways for clubs and fans are likely the evident promise shown by new recruits, and perhaps a need to crack down on discipline and understanding of new game laws as there were several yellow cards handed out across the board. These, like most things, will get ironed out in due course. Nonetheless, respective Hong Kong’s 15s national team coaches Andrew Hall and Jo Hull will be very pleased that the season is up-and-running as they cast a keen eye on World Cup qualifiers squads for next year. Round two fixtures this Saturday November 14: Men’s HK Scottish vs Kowloon, 2pm at King’s Park HKFC vs HKU Sandy Bay, 3.30pm at Hong Kong Football Club USRC Tigers vs Valley, 4pm in King’s Park Women’s Kowloon vs Gai Wu Falcons, 5.30 at King George V School Tigers Ladies vs Valley Black Ladies, 6pm at King’s Park HKFC Ice vs SCAA Causeway Bay Phoenix, 6.15 at Hong Kong Football Club Live-streams and highlights of selected games will be shown on HKRU’s Facebook page.