The Hong Kong men’s XV beat South Korea 23-21 in the decider of the Asia Rugby Championship in Incheon, South Korea today. Gregor McNeish’s 80th minute game-winning penalty advanced Hong Kong to the next stage of Rugby World Cup Qualification, with a match against Tonga on 23 July, and the winner qualifying directly for the world championship in France.
It was the first test match since 2019 for Hong Kong and it looked it at times with the game fairly sloppy throughout. Surprisingly, most of the miscues came from the hosts South Korea who beat Malaysia heavily in the opening round in June.
Hong Kong’s game plan of putting the ball behind the Korean pack would eventually produce the desired result, although the high ball attack backfired early on. It was a disastrous start for Hong Kong when winger Charles Higson-Smith made contact with his opposing winger’s head collecting a deep kick and was shown a red card in the opening minute.
That left Hong Kong playing a man-down for the remainder of the game. The squad produced an immense effort to counter that disadvantage and patiently amassed a 15-0 lead at halftime, before clinging to it desperately for nearly all of the second half.
Debut fly half Glyn Hughes opened the scoring in the 11th minute with his penalty giving Hong Kong a 3-0 lead. They extended that margin to 8-0 with an impressive effort from the forwards, who conjured up a rolling maul that flattened the Korean defence before hooker Alex Post crossed the line. Hughes’ conversion was wide.
A yellow card to Hong Kong’s other starting winger, Matt Worley, saw the visitors drop to 13 players against 15 midway through the first half – and led to Korea’s best chances of the game, including a near-try that was held up across the line by Bryn Phillips and Mark Prior.
Worley made amends for his card when he returned late in the half, finishing off a scrappy patch of play from both teams with a try beneath the posts. James Sawyer provided the stability needed with a turnover to feed the final Hong Kong rush. Ben Axten-Burrett and Worley produced some nice interchange play before Worley touched down beneath the posts.
Hughes’ conversion was good and Hong Kong took a 15-0 lead into half-time, while Korean frustrations mounted at their inability to bring their numerical advantage to bear. Still, Hong Kong’s first half heroics required a sapping effort and the second half would prove an endurance test for the SAR.
Coach Lewis Evans kept faith with his starters early on, opting not to use the subs bench at the interval, while South Korea came out in the expected frenzy. The Koreans enjoyed more territory in the opening ten minutes of the second half, than all of the first as they parked in Hong Kong’s half.
Korea’s miscues persisted in the second half, but the ball was starting to bounce in their favour. The hosts produced their first try after 45 minutes when lock Choi Seong Dook was the beneficiary of three fly-hacked balls up field. The big man did well to control the ball with his own feet and win a footrace for the try to put Korea on the board at 15-7.
For the first time since kick-off, Hong Kong started to look as if it were a man down, with the holes growing larger on the pitch and Korea fast building the momentum to exploit them.
The hosts capitalized well from another period of sustained pressure, adding a penalty and a second try in a ten-minute period. The try came from long-serving captain Kim Kwang Min, who was held up over the line in the first half.
Inside the final quarter, the score was tied at 15-all with the Hong Kong defence out on its feet. A penalty allowed Korea to take the lead for the first time in the match after 70 minutes as they pushed ahead 18-15. Hong Kong patiently built another attack and looked to have scored the go-ahead try on its next possession, but the score was disallowed for a knock-on.
In a true test of its character, Hong Kong kept Korea bottled up and eventually produced its own pressure try through Nathan DeThierry, who touched down a perfectly weighted kick pass from McNeish in the corner to regain the lead, 20-18.
Korea responded to the challenge brilliantly, coming back on its next play to force a penalty after Hong Kong failed to release the ball in the tackle. The penalty gave Korea back the lead, 21-20, in the 75th minute.
With time nearly elapsed and desperation in the air, Hong Kong mounted one last attack with McNeish kicking deep for an attacking lineout. Try-scorer Choi was pinged for collapsing the lineout, giving Hong Kong a penalty and McNeish a chance to steal the win back from under Korean noses.
His penalty was true and with 0:00 showing on the clock, Hong Kong had beaten South Korea 23-21, defending its Asia Rugby championship title for a third time running and kept its Rugby World Cup dream alive.
“We did not make it easy for ourselves with some of our indiscipline issues but the result shows the character in this team,” said Lewis Evans after his international coaching debut.
“Going down a man after a minute, and leading at half-time shows the quality and belief that we have in this team and our performance in the last half shows the mental resilience we have developed over the past three years. I cannot say enough about the boys today, they were outstanding,” added Evans.