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Natixis HKFC started its Saxo Markets Premiership season, with a 50-19 win over Herbert Smith Freehills HKU Sandy Bay at Sports Road in the opening round of the five-week Saxo Premiership Challenge Trophy. Societe Generale Valley was the other big winner today, beating Borrelli Walsh USRC Tigers 43-17, whilst Kerry Hotel Kowloon tipped Bloomberg Hong Kong Scottish 17-12.
The bonus point wins leave HKFC and Valley atop the Challenge Trophy table with five points, followed by Kowloon (four points for the win, no bonus) and Scottish with a single bonus point for a loss within seven, while Sandy Bay and Tigers have zero.
It was a day of debuts across Hong Kong and Football Club’s new tools looked sharp out of the box as the defending league champions’ attack appears even more dangerous than last season. New scrumhalf Jonty Wood did well to unleash a potent backline featuring South China Tigers fly-half Glyn Hughes, Hong Kong centre Tom Hill, ex Wales sevens star Tom Isaac and Niall Rowark at full-back, and two new wings Fionn Carr from Pro 14 and ex-England sevens player Jack Wilson, both of whom scored tries on their debut.
A Club side still smarting over not reaching the Grand Final last year – and still remembering it was Sandy Bay that dumped them out at the same ground six months ago – repaid the favour with a fierce start as they spent most of the first half in Sandy Bay territory. Despite some damaging crash balls from Hill, they had only a 3-0 lead to show for all of that possession early on, after a penalty from fly half Glyn Hughes in the fourth minute.
Two of Club’s U25 contingent for the Challenge Trophy (each team can field a maximum of five players under 25), were involved early on as well. Skipper Cam Wakeley capped the sustained opening pressure with an easy try for the hosts in the 13th minute - crossing over nearly untouched from an overlap to push the lead to 8-0.
Flanker Sam Pim helped grow that margin to 15-0 moments later when he carried from the back of the ruck deep into the Sandy Bay defence before conjuring up a backhand flick pass for the waiting Isaacs who crossed for the easy score, with Hughes adding the conversion from in front.
Captain Gair Currie stepped to the fore for Sandy Bay, scoring the club’s first try of the campaign after some positive work by the forwards gave them an attacking platform from a line-out on Club’s 22-metres. U25s selection hooker Jak Lam put in a nice throw to the back of the line for No8 Ben Davey, who made the gain-line off his charge toward the near post. Good recycling from Metters eventually freed Currie down the line for the try with the conversion closing the gap to 15-7.
Sandy Bay’s spirits were dashed by their hosts on the ensuing kick-off, however, as Carr showed his quality with a weaving run down the far touch line, before neatly chipping the last line of defence for the score as Club moved ahead 20-7. Hughes missed the conversion but made amends moments later when he slotted a 40-metre penalty to push the lead to 23-7, sending Club into half time with what appeared a commanding lead.
The league champions may have let their guard down slightly to start the second, and Sandy Bay quickly took advantage as new signing Simon Bienvenu made himself welcome at Football Club with an electric try from the re-start. The seemingly unimposing Bienvenu claimed the ball at the halfway line before side-stepping the onrushing Club pack and tip-toeing down the touch line, where a magnificent swerve put him across the line for a magician’s try; Metters slotted the conversion to close the gap to 23-12.
Fullback Iwan Phillips, who transferred over from Kowloon in the close season, then scored his first try for Sandy Bay moments later, capping a solid team-wide rush created by some hard running from prop Zac Cinnamond and lock Mark Prior. Another new signing in back George Humphreys, who had come on for an injured Gair Currie late in the first half, did well to straighten the line on his possession before offloading to Phillips for an emphatic finish.
Metters' conversion left Sandy Bay trailing by a single score, 23-19, with most of the second half remaining.
Stung, Club reacted well down the homestretch and in truth Sandy Bay never looked like scoring further, as the home side turned to its deep and experienced bench, a luxury it became evident that Sandy Bay - and likely most of the Premiership - does not have in similar numbers. Club closed out the game on a tear, as Hughes added a second penalty to push the buffer back to 26-19, before Wakeley collected his brace, blowing out the margin to 33-19 after Hughes’ conversion.
Club would cross over thrice more with the final score - a kick-pass from Isaacs to Wilson - putting a pretty finish on as they hit the half-ton, 50-19.
Coach Jack Wiggins left no doubt of Club’s approach to the Challenge Trophy saying, “There will be opportunities for the younger guys to play in the opening rounds, but we are also looking at it as a launching pad to the Premiership. As is always the case at Club, winning is important, so I was pleased to get off to the start we did.
“We had five or six guys on debut, and it will always take them a bit of time to adapt to the game and the conditions here, but from an attack perspective, we looked pretty dangerous, maybe even a bit more dangerous than last year. Onwards and upwards from here,” he added.
Sandy Bay coach Brett Wilkinson came away from the encounter thankful for the opportunities it provided to further prepare his side for the Premiership hunt: “We have a lot of new faces in, and a lot of new caps today so it was good to get that first outing behind us. Now we can go back and review and get better from that performance.
“The Challenge Trophy is about the younger players getting game time and building our strength in depth. We have a few guys still to come back from injury as well, so it is about giving them those opportunities now, and seeing where the guys are at on the big stage in a game like today.
“For the new arrivals, a lot of them don’t know what rugby is like in Hong Kong, so it’s good for them to get a taste and also good for us as coaches to be able to give some early marks. We are still a ways off from where we want to be, but that is to be expected.
“When we played with a bit of intensity we broke their line and scored some cracking tries and a lot of our individual performances were pretty good, but there is still a lot to work on,” he added.