Hong Kong concluded their ARC campaign with a two wins, two losses record after rebounding from a couple of close but ultimately unfruitful encounters against champions Japan to sweep South Korea.
Hong Kong exploded for three tries in the last 12 minutes to break open a dour match that was in the balance at 13-3 at halftime and 20-3 with 20 minutes remaining.
Coach Leigh Jones was delighted that his side managed to widen the margin over their traditional rivals with today’s win marking the fifth straight victory over Korea dating back to 2015.
“I’m glad we didn’t wither away and die in the second half,” said Jones. “The subs came on and for the first time in the series actually made a real difference. We pinched three tries at the end, largely thanks to the influence the subs had and that’s great.”
Both sides struggled to perform in the high humidity and 34-degree conditions in Hong Kong. Neither team was able to establish any momentum as numerous penalties and handling errors (a total of 26 in the match) sides derailed much of the encounter before Hong Kong’s late surge.
“I’m generally pleased. I’m not too happy with today as we probably left four or five tries out there, but overall, you’ve got to be happy with the campaign.
“That’s the fourth game for us and we have grown as a group. Four reasonably consistent performances show that the professional era in Hong Kong is paying off and I’m delighted with that,” said Jones.
The first quarter saw both sides exchange penalties with Korean fly half Yu Jae-hyeok striking first in the 12th minute before fullback Jamie Hood levelled the scores for Hong Kong two minutes later.
Flanker Nick Hewson extended Hong Kong’s lead in the 26th minute, capitalising on an errant throw-in to the lineout by Korea deep in their own half – corralling the loose ball and lunging across the try-line. Hood’s conversion brought the score to 10-3 and he extended the lead to 13-3 with a second penalty in the 39th minute. Hood converted four-of-five attempts with the boot on the afternoon.
Hong Kong asserted itself in the second half as the forwards gained their first dominance at the scrum, pushing Korea off the ball on numerous occasions. That pressure told in the 45th minute when Hong Kong were awarded a penalty try from an attacking five-metre scrum that was disrupted by intentional off-sides by the Korean flanker. Hood’s conversion brought the score to 20-3.
Ben Rimene pushed the margin to 25-3 in the 68th minute when he capped off a skilful passage of handling by Hong Kong with a try in the corner. Flanker Toby Fenn started the move by turning Korea over at the ruck at the halfway line with Hong Kong’s backline queuing up for the attack. Hood’s touchline conversion was unsuccessful.
Five minutes later, lock Kyle Sullivan, capped for the first time earlier in the series, broke the Korean gain-line and found himself in space behind the defence before being clawed down at the visitor’s 22-metre line. A nice clearance from Hood at the ruck again set Hong Kong into space with No.8 Dan Falvey supporting well to cap off the try in the corner. Rimene slotted the difficult conversion to put Hong Kong ahead 32-3.
The hosts delighted the home crowd in the 79th minute when scrum-half Cado Lee Ka-to finished off a charge engineered by Hood, who froze winger Chang Yong-heung in place with a pretty back-handed flick pass to an onrushing Hewson. Hewson carried the ball for 20 metres before finding Lee streaking inside for a try beneath the posts; Falvey added the chip-shot conversion to conclude the scoring at 39-3.
The win sees Hong Kong claim second in the ARC with ten points from their two wins and two bonus points over Korea. Japan finished as champions with a perfect four-win, no-loss record and 19 points, while Korea went winless in the campaign posting a single bonus point on the opening weekend.
Jones sees progress since the advent of the professional era for fifteens rugby in Hong Kong in 2015 with the inception of the HKRU’s Elite Rugby Programme.
The players will now take a short holiday for recovery and assessment, while the squad’s sevens specialists will start preparing for the Asia Rugby Sevens Series. The ERP players will re-assemble in early July to start preparations for a Tour of Kenya in August.