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[1/6/2024] Hong Kong China Men’s players and Head Coach admitted beforehand that they didn't know what to expect in their Asia Rugby Men’s Championship opener against newly promoted UAE, but aside from two tricky periods of play, there was a lot to be happy about in their rain-soaked 52-5 win.

Captain Joshua Hrstich said straight after the victory that it had been a “hard-fought game” and that it had been good to get out on the pitch at home while thanking the fans for the great turnout “which meant everything”. The Hong Kong China captain missed the championship last season and said that they could not worry too much about what to expect from the UAE in their preparation and that they had focused on themselves. He also added that the UAE was a welcome addition to this level.

Late in the week, the team also had to make some enforced changes, with Harry Sayers coming in at #23, Matteo Avitabile starting at #10 on debut for the late injury withdrawal of Glynn Hughes, and Paul Altier starting at #15.

Hong Kong China Secure Bonus Point In Opening Half

The international match was played in very wet conditions and Hong Kong China won the toss with the UAE kicking off. The opening ten minutes saw the home side have to handle a lot of pressure from the newcomers to an expanded four team championship.

Both sides had some physical size to them and it was the visitors who forced some early territorial dominance. After the hosts absorbed the pressure from the first of many scrums, Hong Kong China broke down the left-hand side only for the dangerous left-wing and Fijian-born Sakiusa Naisau (wearing number 30) to intercept and score a runaway try for the UAE to take lead 5-0 with the missed conversion.

The wet ball was seeing some handling errors as expected, but it was the rucks that were most fiercely contested early on. Hong Kong China earned a penalty in the 13th minute and opted for the posts but big centre Tommy Hill missed the kick.

Shortly after, there was another good attacking phase down the left leading to a lineout for the hosts, and a good set piece move saw hooker, John McCormick-Houston, cross the try line with Hill converting to make it 7-5 to Hong Kong China in the 18th minute. It was the firelighter needed to get the side going after a tight opening quarter.

Shortly after the restart, an excellent up-and-under was collected by fullback Paul Altier, who was a threat all game and safe at the back, and who popped the ball to the energetic scrum half Harry Laidler running a good support line to score with Hill converting to extend the lead to 14-5.

Within minutes, the UAE knocked on and Hong Kong China led an instinctive counterattack with quick feet and hands getting Laider over for his second converted try for a 19-5 lead in the 25th minute.

On debut, the Hong Kong China flyhalf, Avitabile, displayed an assured head, great feet and an accurate kicking game and helped the side find holes in the tiring UAE defence as the half went on.

Another fantastic break by Sebastian Brien set up a series of phases and attacks with Hill doting down under the posts and converting his own score for a score of 26-5 with 5 minutes left in the half and the bonus point for the 4th try.

The final few minutes were scrappy but the UAE had one more attack on the Hong Kong China try line, but it was well spoiled for the ball to go into touch for the halftime break.

Second Half Arm Wrestle 

Although Hong Kong China Men’s Head Coach Andrew Douglas would have been happy with the lead, the UAE showed in the first forty minutes that they would be a threat in the Championship in 2024.

The second half started better for the hosts and they had all the possession and territory for the first five minutes, eventually Hill adding his second try from a lineout and again accurate with the conversion for a lead of 33-5. Within minutes, the ball was zipping through the backs' hands and Seb Brien put in Altier for a well-deserved converted score with Hong Kong China leading 40-5 with 30 minutes to go.

The following 15-20 minutes were not as fluid, but there were lots of positives. Hard runs from Luke Van Der Smit were a hallmark, while the spine of the backs decision-makers at 9-10-15 seemed to gel well and get the ball moving nicely and placing the ball behind the physical UAE pack with their collective boots.

The period also saw the side deal well with the yellow card to John McCormick-Houston in the 51st minute and not conceding any points while down to 14 players. The UAE had some of their best phases in attack and nearly broke Hong Kong China a couple of times, but for good defensive hits, steals and dropped balls.

The scrums (and there were plenty) were also in favour of Hong Kong China, who won several penalties even when the front rows were changed and with a player down in the pack.

All of the debutants got a run too, with Camill Cheung replacing the impressive Laidler at scrumhalf and Chukwudi Edison getting through a good shift in the final quarter to experience international rugby, with all of the reserve bench bringing a fresh impetus of energy.

If anything, the coaches were probably less happy with the team’s structure in the second half, with a couple of instances of players overplaying in the tough conditions. 

Experienced front row reserve Faizal Solomona Penese nearly added a try late in the game but replacement hooker Alex Post did cross over for the first points in nearly twenty minutes as they worked a good set piece from the lineout and the scoreboard showed 47-5 after yet another successful Hill conversion.

The final points came shortly after as more devastating hands saw Hong Kong China break quickly from within their half and Charles Higson-Smith dotted down for a final score of 52-5.

Looking ahead, the Hong Kong China captain added that the trip to Malaysia next weekend would be tricky and the weather would have helped them prepare, but added “If we stick to our process and structure we will be ok. We have lots of work-ons and we go again next week.”

Asia Rugby Championship 2024 - Remaining Hong Kong China Men's matches:

- Sat 8 Jun, 14:00. Malaysia Men's XV vs Hong Kong China - UPM Stadium (Selangor, Malaysia) 

- Sat 22 Jun, 16:30. Hong Kong China Men's XV vs South Korea – Hong Kong Football Club  Buy Tickets

Information and Photo source : Hong Kong China Rugby


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