Battle in Borneo: Hong Kong reaches Cup Final of Borneo Sevens against hosts Borneo Eagles

20 March 2016

A ten-man Hong Kong side lost the Cup final of the 2016 Borneo Sevens today being edged by hosts Borneo Eagles 21-7, who defended their 2015 title.

Hong Kong battled their way through physical quarter- and semi-final ties to set up a tantalizing match with the tournament's top seed, defending champions the Eagles. All along the two squads have looked the class of the competition and the final was a fitting encounter to cap the World's Greenest Sevens.

Borneo Eagles are an invitational side based in Sabah, Malaysia that attracts A-list players from Fiji and New Zealand and are perennial contenders at their home event and other sevens competitions around the region. Last year, the Eagles beat renowned Fijian side Daveta by a single point in the final, while Hong Kong won the Asia-Pacific Cross-Continental Sevens Cup, played as part of the 2015 Borneo Sevens, beating Tonga in the final.

"Borneo looked really good all weekend. They have a lot of Fijian and Kiwi players and play a good brand of rugby. It was always going to be a very tough final for us, but that is what we wanted in terms of our preparation for Hong Kong next month."

Playing with ten men in the final, after losing captain Max Woodward and front rower Toby Fenn earlier in the day to slight injuries, Hong Kong conceded an early try to the Eagles and then squandered a chance to level the scores minutes later. Borneo collected a second try on the stroke of half-time but Hong Kong came out firing in the second half, quickly forcing Borneo into conceding a penalty try to come within seven points (14-7) after Jamie Hood's conversion was successful. It was anyone's game thereafter but in the waning minutes, Borneo countered from deep to race away for their third score of the game and a 21-7 win in the final.

"We are battered and bruised a bit after what was a very good final. It was pretty even although they had the better start getting an early try on the on the board before we could settle in," said Baber.

"That was what we wanted out of this weekend," Baber added. "Borneo is a very good team with some really skillful players. They play a Fijian style of rugby and I was pleased to see at the end of the day that there wasn't much between the two teams.

"We will now head back to Hong Kong, assess the players for any injuries and get on with our preparations for the [Hong Kong] Sevens," said Baber, who will have the team in camp at the Hong Kong Sports Institute for the next three weeks.

Hong Kong's route to the showcase match started with a 19-5 win over Australian side, Palmyra Pirates, in the first quarterfinal and first match of day two. "We were a bit slow to get into the game and I think the guys were frustrated at their start, but we found our way eventually. It was a good wake up call for us," said Hong Kong coach Gareth Baber.

Hong Kong's win in the quarters set up a surprisingly stiff semifinal against tournament debutants Panthers Blowpipes, a Kuala Lumpur-based Malaysian Super league team featuring a mix of indigenous players and locally based Fijians. The Panthers nearly clawed their way into the Cup in a highly physical semi where Fenn and Woodward picked up slight niggles that would see them rested for the final out of an abundance of caution with the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens on the horizon.

Motivated by their tournament debut and the on-pitch rivalry between Kuala Lumpur and Sabah rugby, the Panthers jumped out to an early lead and doggedly maintained it for most of the match. Hong Kong eventually leveled the scores at 14-all entering the last minute when Jamie Hood spotted the gap to score the game-winner handing Hong Kong a 19-14 win.

"It was a very physical encounter and full credit to them, they pushed us all the way to the end," said Hong Kong coach Gareth Baber.

Baber was pleased that this weekend's tournament provided the squad a good test as they continue their preparations for the upcoming World Rugby Sevens Series Qualifier, played as part of next month's Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens.

"This weekend has been good for us. The teams here have been very physical and there is a good blend of local and international players. We needed these aggressive, physical games to get the players re-accustomed to a tournament environment after a few months out of competition.

"We always have a goal of reaching the semi final or the final and we've done that. We also played seven games in 32 hours and in some very hot weather [Ed. note: temperatures in today's final were 32°], which is fantastic for our conditioning and introducing the new players to what the sevens environment is like," Baber said.

The two new caps selected for Borneo, Hong Kong fifteens caps James Cunningham and Toby Fenn, performed to Baber's expectations. "They've done well. It's been good to have them along and they certainly brought that physicality that we were after. They will have learned a lot from this experience. Everyone has now had an important reminder of what it's like to go out and play a match and be back up to do it again two hours later," concluded Baber.

Borneo is Hong Kong's sole warm-up tournament ahead of the World Rugby Sevens Series Qualifier, played as part of next month's Hong Kong Sevens (8-10 April). Hong Kong, Zimbabwe, Germany and Cayman Islands are in Pool E for the Qualifier, the winner of which earns promotion to next season's HSBC Sevens Series.