It was a fairy tale ending for Herbert Smith Freehills HKU Sandy Bay in a final that could have gone either way against a tenacious, battling HK Scottish team in the Grand Championship Final at King's Park.
Sandy Bay rolled out its A-game off the pitch, with the fan-machine kicking in to top gear with supporters of all ages braving the torrential rain and getting right in behind the team with full voice and song. It was a truly amazing level of noise that carried the players onto victory.
In the truly awful weather, it was always going to be a ding-dong, perhaps a doozy or even a humdinger. The lead changed five times, with the Bay finally clawing back the advantage in the 76th minute with a magnificent try to hard-working No. 8, Luke Van Der Smit, who’d carried strongly all game and provided much front-foot ball.
And then the real work began because Scottish came back ferociously and pounded the Bay try-line for what seemed like an eternity of 31 phases. The Bay scrum and then defence did not buckle and the ball was eventually turned over. As referee Tim Baker blew for time, the fully twisted crowd flooded onto the pitch, mobbing their heroes and the Bay marched in.
HK Scottish deserve full appreciation as a quality side that gave it everything but the massive momentum that Sandy Bay brought with six consecutive wins behind them was enough to get them across the finish line, capping an incredible turnaround in the space of 6 weeks. Hats off to coach Brett Wilkinson and his support team of Ian Wilson, Marno Meyer, James Rees and Jesper Wong for sticking to task when all seemed lost and heads could have gone down.
The fight back in the final minutes of this Grand Final epitomised the fight back from the depths of the bottom rung of the premiership ladder.
This victory will be especially cherished by those players – Matt Lamming, Alex McQueen, Dylan Rogers, Angus Cameron, Jack Delaforce, Liam Slatem and Tom McQueen - that had come away empty handed from a number of grand finals and even more so to Cameron and Rogers who have officially hung up their boots.
On the same day that Sandy Men’s teams held up two other league/grand final trophies, it can be said that Sandy Bay has arrived and has indeed come marching in.
And now some words from proper journalists....
Herbert Smith Freehills HKU Sandy Bay’s storybook season has ended in thrilling fashion.
As the rain poured down on King’s Park and the seconds ticked away, the upstart club held off a late surge from Bloomberg HK Scottish to win the grand final of the men’s premiership season 26-23 on Saturday.
Up by three in the dying seconds of the game, Sandy Bay capped off a remarkable run that started with them in the basement of the league, and now sees them sipping champagne from the play-off trophy.
Coach Brett Wilkinson said Scottish gave them a serious run for the championship in what was a wet, rough, back and forth contest in which the Scottish side led for substantial portions of the game.
“We were under huge pressure, and the boys just stuck at it,” said Wilkinson, the second-year head coach. “It wasn’t good for the heart, and this game could have gone either way and they could have easily scored at the end there and we would have been on the other side of the results.”
It was in the 76th minute that the dream season for the former Hong Kong Cricket Club side started to feel like a reality. That’s when No 8 Luke van der Smit scored, giving Sandy Bay a late lead and sending the crowd into a frenzy.
Scrum half Liam Slatem, who scored Sandy Bay’s first try of the game early in the first half after he broke through the line, said the win on Saturday became the “story of their season”.
“We started slow, worked our way back into it in the last 10 minutes or so and decided to come to the party.”
Slatem added the team’s turning point was mostly a mental one from cellar dwellers to champions. He said their first win around Christmas was the eventual foundation for what was a Cinderella run to the grand final, sneaking into the final play-off spot.
“I think it was kind of finding our identity, we were probably a group of individuals trying to play different games. And so we realised we’re a good team when we play ball in hand and once we started keeping the ball that was the turning point really.”
Second row Sandy Bay player Jack Delaforce said the victory was quite sweet knowing where they came from earlier in the season.
“All year we had been close in games and we knew it was just a matter of time before it all clicked. I mean seven wins in a row, it’s pretty unbelievable.”
Herbert Smith Freehills HKU Sandy Bay claimed a seventh straight win the hard way tonight after surviving a grueling battle with fellow finals debutants Bloomberg Hong Kong Scottish, 26-23, to win the Saxo Capital Markets Grand Championship.
The win marks a remarkable comeback season for Sandy Bay, who were worst in the league ahead of Christmas before snapping off a run of six straight bonus point (for scoring four tries or more) wins.
The weather and the occasion conspired to tighten matters considerably tonight in a torrential downpour at King’s Park.
Tries in either half from scrumhalf Liam Slatem and No.8 Luke van der Smith, his the game-winner, coming in the 76th minute to reverse a 23-19 deadlock, helped Sandy Bay win an arm wrestle that saw five lead changes across an action packed 80 minutes.
Hooker Dayne Jans scored his second try of the play-offs for Scottish in the opening half to give his side a 13-10 lead at the break after fullback Sean Taylor notched two penalties and a conversion in the first stanza.
Sandy Bay captain Gair Currie was also solid from the tee, notching a penalty and converting Slatem’s tally to keep Sandy Bay within striking distance. He was again on target in the first minute of the second half with a penalty to level the score for the first time at 13-13 with 39 minutes remaining.
Captain Josh Dowsing replied for Scottish in the 55th minute when the big No.8 rode his forwards right through the middle of the Sandy Bay scrum to find himself in space with 15 metres to the line. Running with a head full of steam all afternoon, Dowsing was unstoppable from that range crashing over to restore the Scottish lead to 20-13 after Taylor’s extras.
Sandy Bay upped the pressure and generated two more scoring chances for Currie, who slotted both penalties in the third quarter to close the gap to 20-19 with 12 minutes on the clock.
Scottish looked to have done enough when Taylor slotted his third penalty in the 72nd minute poking ahead 23-19 and leaving Sandy Bay needing a try on a night where the rain meant handling was at a premium.
With time running out Sandy Bay was awarded a lineout 15-metres from the Scottish line and controlled the ball beautifully in tough conditions. They quickly formed the driving maul, which wheeled left and right before the play came crashing to the turf five metres from the try-line. The Scottish defence were rushing to get behind the ball but the whirling momentum of the play had created gaps and Slatem quickly found the towering van der Smit who dove over untouched for the try - a pleasant contrast, no doubt, for the big man who was immense carrying the ball for the club down the stretch. Jack Metters converted van der Smit’s score to poke Sandy Bay ahead 26-23 but the fireworks were not yet over as Scottish would have the final scoring opportunity with a scrum in Sandy Bay’s half as the hooter sounded.
After detonating the Sand Bay scrum on several occasions this time the defence held forcing Scottish to attack from a static position, which they did, and did, and did again over nearly 30 phases as seconds turned into minutes on the season’s final possession.
Scottish drove the ball to the line crashing to the ground in a heap, when the ball squeezed out on Sandy Bay’s side with Slatem quickly putting it - and the season - into touch.
It was the first Grand Championship in the Club’s first Premiership season as Sandy Bay, although they have reached the same stage in a previous life as Aberdeen.
“It was an awesome result for the boys,” said captain Gair Currie.
“To come from the position we were in, at the bottom of the league last season, and the bottom of the table at Christmas, and then to win seven on the bounce and claim the grand championship in our first year as Sandy Bay, it’s incredible.
“Credit to all of the boys and to Brett [Wilkinson, coach] for backing us and having confidence in us and the backing we have had from the supporters has been amazing.
“There are a couple of boys retiring today and it is a great send-off for them; guys like Gus Cameron and Dylan Rogers have been stalwarts for six or seven years. They have lost the grand championships a few times to Valley, so this win means a lot for them.”
Liam Slatem also commented on the thrilling finale saying, “It was the story of our season really. We started slow and worked our way back into it in the last ten minutes or so, when we switched on and decided to come to the party.”
By the look of things tonight at King’s Park that party could be going on for a long while at Sandy Bay.