The Hong Kong, China men’s and women’s sevens teams’ quest for spots on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series ended at the quarter final stages of the World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series in Stellenbosch.
Overnight the men lost to eventual Series champions Tonga, 33-12. Hong Kong’s only losses in the two-tournament men’s Challenger Series came at the hands of Tonga, who have been in imperious form over the last fortnight. The women lost their quarter final to Belgium, who reached their second straight cup final today, 40-5.
The teams rebounded as positively as possible from the disappointment of their knock-out losses with both sides claiming wins in their placing matches today to reach the fifth-sixth placed final.
The men, using a squad of only 10 players after attrition and injuries, beat Italy 20-5 to advance to the fifth place play-off against African champions Uganda, while the women held off Paraguay 12-5 to set up a rematch with Poland, whom they drew with 17-all on day one. The women lost 24-10 to finish in sixth, while the men beat Uganda 17-7 for a fifth placed finish.
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The women’s squad started the play-off brilliantly, scoring a beautiful team try after two minutes of unrelenting attack to take a 5-0 lead. From there on out, it was all Poland, as they struck twice in the first half to take a 14-5 lead at the break. Poland then capitalized on some poor tackling in the second half to push to a 24-10 final win after Nam Ka-man scored Hong Kong’s second try at the death.
In the morning, the women fielded four under 20s in their victory over Paraguay, but it was the experience of Chong Ka-yan that made a difference in a tense affair. Both teams were scoreless into the seventh minute before Chong produced a great dummy run for a solo try to put Hong Kong up 7-0 at half. The second period was equally tense, with neither side scoring before Chong produced her second try from another shake and bake effort to push Hong Kong’s ahead 12-nil with under three minutes left.
Paraguay fought back bravely, scoring late to close the gap to 12-5, and wining their restart to threaten Hong Kong before co-captain Natasha Olson-Thorne produced a great steal to close out the 12-5 win.
The men finished in fifth after extending a 12-7 half-time lead over Uganda to a 17-7 final behind tries from Alessandro Nardoni, Max Denmark and Liam Herbert in an encounter that Hong Kong largely controlled from the kick-off.
Earlier the men had put in another composed performance against Italy, amassing a patient 10-0 lead after dominating play in the first half.
Coach Jevon Groves ran a young starting set today with James Christie and Mak Kwai-chung mastering the game well from midfield in replacement of play-maker Russell Webb who was injured yesterday. Mak, who has come into his own this season, marshalled the attack well.
In the second half against Italy, Alex McQueen assumed kicking duties from Mak with Max Denmark the early beneficiary as he finished two long patches of possession with tries as Hong Kong dominated the final stanza also. Italy managed a consolation score late to get on the board 20-5 in a losing effort
China’s women’s team fell at the semi-final stages for a second week in a row, losing to Belgium 22-5 as Asia’s sides came up empty-handed from the Challenger Series 2023.
Although the disappointment of missing out on World Series spots was palpable, Hong Kong will turn its focus to the next job now, namely the Asian Series and Asian Games this summer and autumn.
“It’s been a tough couple of weeks,” said Hong Kong Sevens head coach Paul John post-tournament, adding: “We have learned loads, especially the girls, who have done really well in finishing ninth in week one and bouncing back to reach the quarter-finals from a very difficult pool, and finishing sixth today. Poland were a bit much for us in the end, but we have given 17 girls international experience on this trip and they have all responded well.
“The boys are looking a bit tired now. Four tournaments in five weeks has definitely taken its toll. This Challenger Series is tough, and rightly so, given everyone wants so badly to get on to the Series. Fifth is not the spot we wanted at the outset, but we have only lost to Tonga here, and they look a cut above everyone else.
“It’s tough really, but I am proud of the way we battled back in two difficult games today. It is a good learning curve for all of us with every game a pressure situation. We need to keep working on the mindset we had at the Hong Kong Sevens, where we are not inhibited and go out and play as we are able to; we needed everything to go right to beat Tonga, and unfortunately, down to only 10 players it was too much to do on this occasion,” John added.
The squads have rarely enjoyed a more comprehensive build-up so the past few weeks may pay surprise dividends at the end of the season, and with the Asian titles and Hong Kong’s Asiad gold medal defence on the line, everything is still to play for in the coming months.