Hong Kong made it two for two from its first round of the Asia Rugby Championship 2019 with a tense 30-24 win over Malaysia. The bonus point win boosts the team – defending its first ever Asian title, to the top of the table, level with South Korea but with the better points differential and a game in hand, including hosting Korea in the finale on 29 June.
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The taut nature of this afternoon’s tie also makes next week’s away leg to Kuala Lumpur that much more interesting, with most observers expecting a heavy win for the hosts today given their 47-10 demolition of Korea last week and the Koreans’ sweep of Malaysia in the first two rounds.
Malaysia coach Brad Mika was pleased with his team’s outing, saying, “I’m really proud of the boys, they showed some character we hadn’t seen in the first two games. We talked about self-belief a lot this week and I think they surprised themselves a bit today. We are looking forward to having another crack at them next week, but I am sure they will come back much stronger,” Mika added.
Malaysia posed a pernicious challenge, grabbing the early lead and shrinking a 17-point margin to within three points in the final ten minutes, despite conceding significant possession and territorial advantage to the hosts. Hong Kong generated an overwhelming number of chances on the day, but a mixture of stiff defence from the visitors and a bit of offensive rustiness saw most of those chances go awry.
Hong Kong started brilliantly, turning Malaysia over from the kick off to drive to the visitor’s try line; but, as they would throughout the day, the Malaysian defence managed to produce a turnover or force the ball from Hong Kong’s grasp at key moments.
Malaysia repaid the favour in turning Hong Kong over and were off to the races on the counter-attack, one of the strengths of their game, with big No.8 Etoni Saukura doing the early damage scoring the game’s opening try after just 8 minutes.
Scrumhalf Bryn Phillips put the hosts on the board seven minutes later, as he collected the ball off the back of a driving scrum to score neatly to the right of Malaysia’s sticks. Flyhalf Paul Altier’s conversion was off target, but Hong Kong had closed the gap to 7-5.
A penalty against Hong Kong saw Malaysian fly half Mohammad Rahman extend that lead to 10-5 minus later. That score held until the final minutes of the half, despite both teams having plenty of chances to cross the whitewash.
Late in the half, Hong Kong were once again perched for a series of attacking scrums on the Malaysian line. The defence foiled those attacks once again, but Hong Kong capitalized moments later when the tables were turned and Malaysia had the put in to a defensive scrum beneath their own posts. Hong Kong took the scrum against the head and blew up the Malaysian pack for the umpteenth time in the set piece, producing the ball quickly for the backs with the Malaysians struggling to adapt to their change in fortunes.
Wing Sam Purvis was the beneficiary, giving Hong Kong its first lead of the game in the 35th minute – 12-10 after Altier’s conversion. Altier was handed his first penalty opportunity on the stroke of half time, slotting it to send Hong Kong into the break leading 15-10.
After a convincing second half performance last week, it seemed a similar effort would be on the cards today, but the game stayed scrappy for both sides through the final whistle, with the score stuck at 15-10 for most of the third period.
Hong Kong were handed an advantage early on when Malaysian prop Bryan Willfreddoline was sin-binned for infringing at the scrum. Malaysia were on the back foot for the entirety of the penalty, ultimately conceding a try to back rower Callum McCullough as Hong Kong pushed ahead to 22-10 after the conversion was wide.
Hooker Mitch Andrews scored moments later to make his long-awaited Hong Kong debut in style by securing the crucial bonus point and pushing Hong Kong into tied first with Korea on the table, as Hong Kong lead 27-10.
But Malaysia were not through, collecting a second try from Saukura to close the gap to 27-15, and scoring minutes later off of a fortunate bounce to further erode the lead to 27-24. A late penalty from Jack Neville was the final score of the match, giving Hong Kong the 30-24 win.
The team will now need to regroup quickly as they travel to Kuala Lumpur next week for the return leg.
“We’re pleased to get the win, first of all,” said coach Andrew Hall after the game, “Credit to Malaysia, they really tested us. They are probably 15 to 20 points better at home, so that gives us some real food for thought this week. But we continued our momentum in the competition, we blooded some new caps, and we tried out some new combinations and gave some players a chance, which are all positives. We need to look at to what extent those combinations worked and to what extent the players took their opportunities.
“You would prefer to have a more comfortable win, but this may actually be best for us. This is probably good to show us that it is damn hard and if you are 1 or 2 per cent off your game these teams will sting you,” Hall added.
Hall credited prop Jack Parfitt for playing today after the passing of his father, Wayne, earlier in the week in Hong Kong.
Parfitt, the most capped player on the field for Hong Kong with 28, was a typical steadying presence around the park, picking up significant metres with ball in hand in the loose.
But the veteran was left wanting more from Hong Kong’s performance a week today.
“We weren’t clinical enough today. Fair play to them, they played really well, but I think we bought into their stuff a bit and went off track. We didn’t stick to our game plan or execute the way we can or want to. We will go away and look at our individual performances, and what we can do better as individuals, and work on what went wrong as a team and how we get better from here,” said Parfitt, whose brother Mike is also in the Hong Kong team, but presently injured.
Their father, who was a familiar presence at internationals and the siblings’ club games for Hong Kong Scottish, profoundly influenced the brothers’ sporting careeers and for Jack there was never any question of missing today’s test.
“It’s been a tough week, but all of the guys have been there for me and the coaching staff have been fabulous and I’m really grateful for that. I know that if I didn’t play today my Dad would have kicked my arse, so I had to – there was no other option,” he laughed.
Members of the Parfitt family from far and wide attended today’s test match, which was preceded by a minute’s silence for Mr Parfitt and Kowloon Rugby stalwart Duncan Andrews, who also passed away this week.
Hong Kong and South Korea are now level on the championship table on 10 points with Malaysia earning its first point for a loss within seven.
Hong Kong Squad v Malaysia (HKFC, 15 June): 1. Dan BARLOW, 2. Jamie TSANG ©, 3. Jack PARFITT, 4. Craig LODGE, 5. Kyle SULLIVAN, 6. Callum MCCULLOUGH, 7. Cris PIERREPONT, 8. Kane BOUCAUT, 9. Bryn PHILLIPS, 10. Paul ALTIER 11. Sebastien BRIEN, 12. Ben AXTEN-BURRETT, 13. Lewis WARNER, 14. Sam PURVIS, 15. Rob KEITH, 16. Mitch ANDREWS, 17. Callum MCFEAT SMITH, 18. Keelan CHAPMAN, 19.Sam TSOI, 20.James CUNNINGHAM, 21. Jamie LAUDER, 22.Jack NEVILLE, 23. Tyler SPIT
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