182 days have passed since the Saxo Premiership Grand Championship final was contested in dire conditions at King’s Park. Two new finalists, Herbert Smith Freehills HKU Sandy Bay and Bloomberg HK Scottish, battled it out in the driving rain, in match that was not decided until the 84th minute.
Ultimately, it was the men from Sandy Bay who came through to win the match and grab the silverware for the first time. HKRU Men’s Player of the Year, Luke van der Smit, secured the win through a close range try in the 76th minute. Skipper Gair Currie converted to produce a narrow three-point margin which they were able to defend for thirty or more phases in the final moments.
That all seems like a thousand years ago now, as Head Coach Brett Wilkinson readies his 2019/20 squad towards the season kick off against Natixis HKFC on Saturday 7th September.
The 2018/19 season saw the loss of the vastly experienced Hong Kong internationals Ben Roberts and Dylan Rogers, while Angus Cameron signed off with a powerful season before retiring to Brisbane. Marno Meyer has now hung up the boots and joins the squad as backs/attack coach, Danny Atamu has retired from high-level rugby and Gareth Kallel has returned to Australia.
Joining the 2019/20 campaign are newly arrived players Dean Rossouw (flanker, South Africa), George Humphrey’s (flyhalf/fullback, England/HK), Brandon Bellamin (centre/winger, England), Simon Bienvenu (centre, France), Alexis Brochet (lock, France) and Sunia Fameitau (prop, New Zealand/Tonga).
Bolstering the ranks are Iwan Phillips (fullback/utility, Wales) and Ben Featherstone (prop, England) who have made the shift to Sandy Bay from Kowloon and USRC Tigers, respectively and Jules Galway (flanker, France) makes the step up from the Vikings squad.
Joining Wilkinson and Meyer in the coaching squad is Will Webster, who has recently joined the HKRU has a Sevens coach following two years with the Kenyan Men’s team on the HSBC Sevens World Series. Behind the scenes, James Rees continues as strength and conditioning coach while Jesper Wong stays on as the physio/medic for the Prems and Vikings squads.
With such wholesale changes, Wilkinson and his coaching crew will be conscious of accelerating the rate at which new combinations can gel and the game plan take shape.
"And so we kick off another exciting season. With new players in town the players have worked hard in the pre season. For us as a team it’s about be more consistent in our league form. With only 2 rounds we will have to hit the ground running. Teams have also recruited well this season so I see it being a very competitive league again with the level going up a notch from last season", observed Wilkinson.
This seasons Premiership has been reduced to a format of two round robins followed by semi and grand finals. However, the season kicks off with a new innovation aimed at introducing younger talent into the top level of domestic rugby. The Challenge Trophy consists of a single round robin with sponsor Saxo Capital Markets offering prize money to all teams based on their league placing.
The Challenge Trophy features a few matchday rule variations such as the requirement to have six players aged 25 or under and a ten-changes substitution interchange.
With contracted HKRU ERP (Elite Rugby Program) players only permitted to play 12 matches within the domestic season, clubs will need to manage their big guns carefully – especially in the early rounds of the Challenge Trophy. For Sandy Bay, this means Liam Slatem, Alex Post and Luke van der Smit may not feature in the first three rounds.
A similar restriction is also in place for the Hong Kong passport holding men’s sevens players such as Alex and Tom McQueen, who are off limits to their Prem teams in the build up to Novembers Olympic Qualifying tournament in Korea.
The season will also be played under the backdrop of the Rugby World Cup in Japan where players will want to sneak off for a weekend or two to catch a few games.
With only ten matches to play in the Premiership, teams will need to hit the ground running. A few early losses could make life very uncomfortable. Eight rounds will be played prior to the Christmas/New Year break and Prem coaches will be sweating on players staying away from the treats in order to carry positive momentum to the final two league matches on 11/18th January.
Thereafter, following another weekend break for Chinese New Year on 25th January, the top four will convene on 1st February for semi-finals, followed by the Grand Championship final on 8th February.
Victory in the 2018/19 season for Herbert Smith Freehills HKU Sandy Bay was not only an outstanding reversal of early season form for the club and a great instrument of unification for the newly merged club but it will also be a great challenge to repeat. Sandy Bay are no longer an unknown element or a new kid on the block – they are a marked and moving target. This is a challenge that Wilkinson and his squad have eagerly prepared for. They are ready for the onslaught.
Get along and support the team as they open their campaign against HKFC - last seasons Premiership winners. Kick off 4.30pm at HKFC.
Follow the Prems at https://www.hkusandybayrfc.com/teams/201787