Hong Kong and Russia reinforced their top contenders’ status after opening wins in the first round of the Regal Hotels Cup of Nations played tonight at Kings Park.
Defendinonf g champions Russia, who have yet to lose a test match in Hong Kong after besting the hosts in a one-off test in 2013 and winning last year’s four-team competition, scraped through a tough encounter against a much-improved Zimbabwe.
Russia took a 19-6 lead into halftime but were outclassed down the stretch as the Sables put on an inspired performance in closing the gap to 19-15 before time ran out on their comeback attempt.
Russia used their burly forwards to good effect early on, taking a 14-0 lead into the 31st minute after a first half brace of tries from flanker Victor Gresev with flyhalf Ramil Gaysin adding the extras.
Zimbabwe got on the board two minutes later after a well-struck penalty from flyhalf Lenience Tambwera but just as quickly conceded a third try to winger Denis Simplikevich, increasing the deficit to 19-3. Tambwera’s second penalty in the 40th minute brought the half-time score to 19-6.
Entering the competition with a much better build-up than last year – when they failed to win a game and ended up bottom of the table, Zimbabwe picked up momentum in the second half, repeatedly forcing the Russians into committing penalties and turnovers with an inspired performance from the forward pack.
Tambwera made Russia pay for their mistakes with two penalty goals in the third quarter bringing his side to within a converted try as they trailed just 19-12 with twenty minutes left. Tambwera’s third penalty edged Zimbabwe even closer at 19-15 with ten minutes remaining, but despite having numerous opportunities to score late, Zimbabwe couldn’t cross the whitewash against a resolute Russian defence.
It was a positive start for Zimbabwe but the inability to cross the line will be a worry as they look ahead to a second round tie against Hong Kong, who scored six tries in a display of offensive firepower against Papua New Guinea.
The competition’s African representatives can build from today’s effort according to Zimbabwe coach Cyprian Mandenge:
“We can take a lot of positives from today. We had too many unforced errors in the first half but we came back well in the second. We had faith in our game plan, maintained our focus and stopped rushing so much. In the end we are very pleased, but also a bit annoyed because we could have won this game,” said Mandenge.
While the Zimbabweans finished on a high, a frustrated Russia will be looking to fine-tune ahead of round two. Captain and fullback Vasily Artemyev chalked up his side’s faltering start to an adjustment period as the defending champions failed to find their groove in round one.
“A win is a win. We got the result we wanted, but there was a lot of frustration. We missed a lot of opportunities. We created chances but the final pass or the final touch just wasn’t there. But it is our first go on this pitch, with this ball and in these conditions. Last year against Portugal was similar in that we had a lot of handling errors in the first match.
“We know we have some work to do in fixing our mistakes and our next game against Papua New Guinea will give us an opportunity to eliminate those errors,” added Artemyev.
Hong Kong blitzed tournament debutants Papua New Guinea
In the second match, Hong Kong blitzed tournament debutants Papua New Guinea, who were playing their first test since August 2015, running in six tries in a 51-5 victory. Hong Kong was the only side to collect the bonus point for tries, with four in the first half and two in the second.
Matt Rosslee, playing just his second match for Hong Kong and his first in the number ten jersey, opened the scoring with a penalty in the tenth minute.
Four minutes later, winger Salom Yiu Kam-shing crossed the line for the first of two tries, followed by scrumhalf Cado Lee Ka-to whose try extended Hong Kong’s lead to 17-0 after Rosslee’s conversions. Vice captain and No.8 Dan Falvey and centre Tyler Spitz added further tries in a blistering first forty minutes. Rosslee was again on target with the boot as Hong Kong leapt ahead by 31 points after 30 minutes. Rosslee added a second penalty before halftime to extend the lead to 34-0 at the break.
Papua New Guinea mounted a stiff fight back in the second half and managed to suppress Hong Kong’s strike rate in the third quarter, but as their fitness fell off, Hong Kong found holes in the defence again.
Rosslee struck his third penalty in the 55th minute before the pacey Yiu capitalised on some poor tackling to collect his brace in the 60th minute. Fullback Ed Rolston celebrated his debut as captain with a try in the 68th minute as Rosslee’s conversion pushed Hong Kong over the half-ton marker at 51-0.
Centre Tisa Kautu scored a captain’s try for Papua New Guinea as he showed some outstanding pace to snake down the far touchline for his side’s first points in the 70th minute. The conversion from the touchline was unsuccessful and Hong Kong ran out easy winners, 51-5.
Hong Kong blooded five new caps in the test, including three recent graduates of the U20s programme in Calvin Hunter, Jason Jeyam and JW Markley. Jeyam, who was highly lauded by Hong Kong coach Leigh Jones ahead of his debut, once again played the sparkplug role as the diminutive scrumhalf injected some lethal pace and sevens vision into the game.
Forward Will Eversfield, who was born and raised in Hong Kong and played for England Students in March, earned his first Hong Kong cap after returning ahead of this year’s Rugbypass.com Premiership season and being fast-tracked for selection.
“It’s all happened pretty quick, but I’m enjoying it a lot. I arrived here in July and played a few games for my Premiership club Tigers and was then thrown in to it a bit, but it’s been great. I’m absolutely loving it,” said Eversfield.
Eversfield partnered another new cap in Calvin Hunter in the second row tonight with both players getting the full 80 minutes.
“We needed to play to our patterns and structures as we knew they would come out at us hard and fast. It was a good first forty minutes but I think we fell off the pace a bit in the second half,” said Eversfield.
Hong Kong assistant coach Andrew Hall commented on his side’s performance saying, “We are really pleased to kick things off with a win, particularly for those new caps that got the run.
“We are well aware that the next tests around the corner with Zimbabwe and Russia are going to be significantly tougher. But we are delighted to get the win and especially for the new guys,” said Hall.
“Our set piece was the difference early on. If you can set the platform then things become much easier. We need to work on our re-starts a bit and we will focus on that ahead of Zimbabwe but our set piece allowed us to get across the gain-line repeatedly, and from there the game looks after itself really,” Hall added.
After round one, Hong Kong is atop the Regal Hotels Cup of Nations table with five points, four for the win and one for the try bonus. Russia is in second on four points, followed by Zimbabwe with one bonus point for a loss within seven. Debutants Papua New Guinea are chasing their first points. Round two will take place on Tuesday, (15 Nov.). Russia take on Papua New Guinea (17.00) and Hong Kong play Zimbabwe at 19.00 (all times are Hong Kong time).