Hong Kong claimed the upper hand in its Rugby world Cup 2019 qualification battle with the Cook Islands after a comprehensive 26-3 win in the first of a two-match play-off series. It was the first ever test match between the two teams.
Hong Kong managed to hold the Cook Islands try-less in Rarotonga, allowing the hosts just a single first-half penalty in what is a huge result for the series, which could ultimately be decided on aggregate points. Hong Kong now enters their home stand needing to win outright or avoid a loss by more than 23 points next Saturday (7 July) at Hong Kong Football Club.
“It was an outstanding performance,” said a delighted Hong Kong coach Leigh Jones after the match.
“I don’t get overly excited about things, but I think it was a historic day for Hong Kong. Cook Islands brought everyone back and they have some top quality players in that side but our performance was just outstanding.
“It was a tough game and that was a hell of a win,” Jones added.
Hong Kong’s stifling defence held the Cook Islands to a sole penalty in the first half, an important marker for the return leg and a devastating blow to the Cook Islands’ hopes of advancing to the repechage tournament in France next November.
“Ahead of the game, we talked about every point being precious, whether we are giving them away or getting them; so that [holding Cook Islands to a single penalty] was a great credit to the boys. They wanted to keep the clean sheet and they did.
“It was a great performance and the boys are celebrating now, but if you look at them, they are also grounded. They know we have to do the same next week,” Jones added.
Canada have booked their place in the final four already while Samoa have opened a big lead on Germany in another bracket. The winner of Hong Kong versus Cook Islands will join them and the winners of the Africa qualification campaign next November.
Hong Kong need only to lose by less than 23 points next Saturday to join the party in France, but Jones is adamant that his side finish things off with a statement.
“We won’t be satisfied with losing. We want to make sure that we finish the job off next week.”
Hong Kong shrugged off the 25-hour travel to the islands and showed no rust from the opening whistle, as they stormed deep into Cook Islands territory from the kick-off to set up their first try.
No. 8 Thomas Lamboley crossed the line in the third minute after a series of well-executed attacking phases on the hosts try line.
Flyhalf Matt Rosslee missed the conversion attempt, setting a pattern after he missed all four of Hong Kong’s conversions, but he was more accurate on his penalty attempts, slotting tough chances on either side of half time to help maintain Hong Kong’s margin.
Hong Kong furthered its lead in the 12th minute after Jack Neville took a sneaky reverse pass from centre Lex Kalecka, who returned from an injury layoff to shore up the centre pairing today. Cutting against the defence Neville opened up enough daylight to put scrumhalf Liam Slatem clear in the corner as he crossed over to extend the lead to 10-0 after the missed conversion.
Cook Islands scored their only points of the game off of a penalty after Nick Hewson was pinged for sealing off the tackler on the ground. Centre Greg Mullany’s kick was successful putting the hosts on the board at 10-3 after 23 minutes.
Hong Kong returned the favour moments later when winger Conor Hartley was served a perfect pass by Slatem to stroll across the tramlines for Hong Kong’s third try and a 15-3 lead.
Rosslee closed out the first half with a successful penalty to send Hong Kong into the break up 18-3.
Hong Kong regularly exploited overlaps in the Cook Islands defence in the first half with all of their tries coming out wide, as the forwards did an excellent job of penetrating the hosts midfield defence, luring defenders in from the flanks to create space for Hong Kong’s dangerous backline.
The Cook Islands put in an improved showing in the second half, aided by a swirling wind that hampered Hong Kong in the final stages.
“You couldn’t see it on TV, but there was a really strong wind and that was why it looked like it was a game of two halves,” said Jones.
“It was very difficult for us to get out of our half in the second half, largely because of the wind,” he added.
Rosslee added Hong Kong’s first points of the second half with a second penalty to push the lead to 21-3
Hong Kong added its fourth and final try late in the game after Max Woodward, who only moments earlier had accounted for a try-saving tackle, was on hand at the other end to finish off some great interplay with winger Salom Yiu Kam-shing before crossing over in the left corner.
Rosslee’s conversion was unsuccessful but Hong Kong had sealed the crucial away win ahead. Both sides will have to lick their wounds and get ready to back up again next weekend.
“It was a very physical game, we were expecting that. They are a big, big side and it was a very physical out there. We have a few battered and bruised, but so have they,” said Jones.
“If we are going to get to where we want to get, we have to cope with opposition and teams like that. Today’s result shows that we are progressing and are able to cope at that next level.
“It is a great result for the Union and for Hong Kong Rugby from top to bottom. We are a really tight organization and that was a credit to everyone involved. To come here and put 20 odd points on them with the team they had out there is magnificent.
“We just need to make sure we back that up next week,” added Jones.
Both sides will now journey back to Hong Kong and Jones is curious to see what the opposition’s selection will look like.
“It will be interesting to see what their travel party will look like and whether some of their big names travel, but it will be a similar approach for us. It’s cup rugby and we don’t need to be too flamboyant. We just need to do what it says on the tin and play good solid, percentage rugby.”
Hong Kong will arrive on Tuesday morning, which with the need for recovery and the long travel period will limit preparations next week according to Jones.
“Obviously we have to factor the journey in and the recovery period, so we are probably only going to be able to train once or twice next week as a group.”
But with one injury occurring before the match even started, (hooker Jamie Tsang was a late scratch after suffering a neck strain in the warm-up), Jones has already seen the depth he has carefully nurtured come to the fore when Alex Post, travelling as back up to a second injured hooker, Ben Roberts, was forced to start.
The former Hong Kong U20s captain turned in a performance for the ages in just his second senior cap.
“Young Postie had to come in after just five or six training sessions and what an outstanding performance he had. It was almost seamless. That speaks highly of him and of the assistant coaches, guys like Craig Hammond have done a great job in preparing the team this week.
“The Union as a whole has done a great job from the coaches and medical and strength and conditioning team to the players, it was a huge result for Hong Kong rugby,” Jones remarked.