[Hong Kong, 20 April 2023]: The Hong Kong Rugby Union’s men’s and women’s sevens squads are underway at the opening HSBC World Rugby Challenger Series competition in a rain-sodden Stellenbosch, South Africa.
It is the first of two tournaments to determine the 12 men’s and women’s teams to take part in next season’s HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, with the second to be played from 28-30 April.
In Pool B, the men saw off challenges from Papua New Guinea and Italy today, and will complete pool play tomorrow against Chile at 17.10. The overall winners of the two-leg men’s Challenger Series will advance to a four-team play-off in May to determine the team elevated to the World Series.
Hong Kong’s attacking threat, Max Denmark, made the best of the wet conditions and heavy turf at the Marenkott Stadium to give Hong Kong, China an early lead after scoring in the first minute against Papua New Guinea. The team never looked back from there, going on to post a 26-5 victory.
Denmark’s try was converted by pivot Russell Webb, while Pierce Mackinlay-West added a second try later in the half with his score pushing Hong Kong, China to a 12-0 lead.
Papua New Guinea clawed back a try before the interval to close the margin to 12-5 at halftime, but Webb collected and converted a crucial try in the first minute of the second half to rebuild Hong Kong’s buffer to 19-5. Captain Max Woodward scored late to push the final score to 26-5.
The men’s last match of the day was against Italy who had lost to Chile earlier, 17-12.
The men jumped out to another hot start with a try in the opening seconds from Hugo S, before building on that lead patiently with two more tries capped by a score from Seb Brien to push Hong Kong ahead 17-5 at the half after a late score from Italy.
The score came too close for comfort in the second stanza with two Hong Kong turnovers leading to Italian tries from far and near as they levelled the score at 17-17 with the clock winding down.
A spectacular solo try from Alessandro Nardoni, who captained the squad for the first time at the Singapore Sevens earlier this month, saved Hong Kong’s bacon. The burly forward dragged a defender for 40 metres, and added two more inside the final five - to score the game-winner as Hong Kong escaped 22-17.
“It was a really good effort from Ale,” said Hong Kong men’s sevens coach Jevon Groves.
“He had just come on and made an impact. There was some really good footwork and strength and it was an excellent finish, an excellent try - that’s what he does, but mostly it his leadership has come on so much as well in these few months and I think he showed that in that moment.”
Hong Kong’s undefeated day one puts them at the top of the pool overnight. Top seeds Chile slipped past Papua New Guinea 22-15 to finish as runners-up in Pool B. Hong Kong beat Chile 26-15 in their last meeting at the Olympic repechage in 2021.
“Obviously, we are pleased to get two wins today, but our performance was still not where wanted it to be today. Conditions are pretty difficult with the rains and some really heavy footing, and I think it may come down to who can adapt best to those conditions tomorrow.
“We had some good starts and scored some nice tries with ball in hand, but I think we are all a bit disappointed in our defensive performance today. We probably lacked a bit of aggression. We know we have it in us and we are definitely going to need that to be improved going into tomorrow,” Groves said.
The women found the going more difficult as they dropped their opener to Colombia 17-12 after leading 12-0 midway through the opening half.
Hong Kong, China got off to an excellent start with Maggie Auyeung Sin-yi scoring from the kick-off to claim a 7-0 lead after Rosie Wright’s conversion. A strong opening half defensive effort for Hong Kong was foiled by a series of handling errors with several balls going to ground as both teams struggled to handle the heavy rains. Excellent defence produced numerous first half turnovers and scrum opportunities for Hong Kong, and they eventually capitalized on that possession with Wright claiming a fortunate bounce out wide to race to the try-line to push the lead to 12-0.
Colombia then clawed a try back to enter half-time trailing 12-5. With the rains intensifying, the second half turned into a stalemate with neither team able to get traction with ball in hand. Hong Kong played the smarter sevens on balance, but a crucial gap in the defensive line allowed Colombia to race in for an 80-metre score out wide to close the margin to 12-10 with less under three minutes left.
Late in the match, a Hong Kong jailbreak attempt from behind their own 22-metres went astray as Colombia isolated the ball carrier and turned possession over, leading to the game-winning try the South Americans as they scored from in close to claim the win, 17-12.
The women then lost their second game against Poland, who had beaten Paraguay 15-7 earlier to go undefeated on day one. Poland’s superior size and strong marking defence, combined with the heavy turf, conspired to starve Hong Kong of any meaningful possession. Hong Kong spent most of the match on defence as they struggled to string together attacking phases, while Poland used its size advantage well to build a 19-0 lead at the break and extend it to 31-0 by full-time. Hong Kong, China will play the bottom seeds Paraguay tomorrow at 15.22.
“It was a tough day,” commented head coach Paul John.
“It was frustrating to lose after going up against Colombia. Poland were a good side and we knew that coming in. We allowed them to play and stood off of them too much and as a result we fell off of a few tackles and gave them some easy tries.
“We are disappointed with day one but we must bounce back and put in a better performance tomorrow. We play Paraguay which will be a good test for us,” added John.