Hong Kong will take a 23-point advantage into the second leg of their Rugby World Cup 2019 play-off with the Cook Islands with a place in the global repechage within touching distance, after winning the first leg 26-3 at BCI Stadium in Rarotonga on Saturday.
Hong Kong managed to hold the Cook Islands try-less in the first test match between the nations with the return leg taking place at Hong Kong Football Club next Saturday.
“It was an outstanding performance,” said Hong Kong coach Leigh Jones. “I don’t get overly excited about things, but I think it was an historic day for Hong Kong. Cook Islands brought everyone back and they have some top-quality players in that side but our performance was just outstanding.
“It was a tough game and that was a hell of a win.
Ahead of the game, we talked about every point being precious, whether we are giving them away or getting them. It was a great performance and the boys are celebrating now, but if you look at them, they are also grounded. They know we have to do the same next week.
“We won’t be satisfied with losing. We want to make sure that we finish the job off next week.”
Hong Kong stormed deep into Cook Islands territory from the kick-off to set up their first try, number eight Thomas Lamboley crossed the line in the third minute after a series of well-executed attacking phases.
Fly-half Matt Rosslee missed the conversion attempt, setting a pattern as he missed all four conversions, but he was more accurate on his penalty attempts, slotting tough chances on either side of half-time to help maintain the Asian side’s lead.
Hong Kong increased their lead in the 12th minute after Jack Neville took a sneaky reverse pass from centre Lex Kalecka. Cutting against the defence Neville created enough space to put scrum-half Liam Slatem over in the corner.
Cook Islands scored their only points of the game through Greg Mullany’s penalty to cut the deficit to 10-3 after 23 minutes, but Hong Kong’s response was swift with Slatem’s pass sending winger Conor Hartley over.
Rosslee added a penalty to give Hong Kong an 18-3 lead at half-time.
The home side continued to improve in the second half and a swirling wind made it difficult for Hong Kong to add to their tally with more than another Roslee penalty.
A fourth try did eventually come through Max Woodward, who only moments earlier had made a try-saving tackle, finishing off some great interplay with winger Salom Yiu Kam-shing.
Namibia chalked up their third consecutive bonus-point victory in the Rugby Africa Gold Cup with a 63-7 win over Morocco in Casablanca on Saturday to remain firmly on course for a fourth straight title and a place in Pool B at Rugby World Cup 2019.
Seven-time champions Namibia top the Gold Cup standings on 15 points with the second-placed Simbas of Kenya seven points in arrears but having played one game less.
The 2018 Gold Cup also serves as the region’s qualification tournament for RWC 2019 with the champions going through to Japan as Africa 1 and the runner-up taking part in the global repechage later this year.
Janco Venter, Cliven Loubser and Justin Newman scored a brace of tries apiece as Namibia backed up earlier victories against Uganda and Tunisia with another clinical performance.
Fly-half Loubser converted both his own tries and six others in an immaculate display of goal-kicking for a personal haul of 26 points.
Tight-head prop Johannes Coetzee scored the first of five first-half tries for Namibia with number eight PJ van Lill and flanker Venter next to cross. Winger Newman then got in on the act with two tries in the space of eight minutes.
Despite losing Bilal Dikhal to a 45th-minute red card, Morocco battled gamely and they were rewarded with a try for winger Karim Qadiri shortly after they had conceded a penalty try.
Unfortunately for the North Africans, they were unable to breach the Welwitschias’ defence again and Loubser’s brace, either side of Venter’s second, took the winning margin past 50.
Speaking after the match, Namibia captain Johan Deysel said: “We knew they’d be physical and we’d have to match them there.
“We did a good job, and I think we were lucky to get the five points. We got here on Tuesday and we prepared well, even though travelling long-distance is hard. Congrats to Morocco for a good game and for playing with a good spirit.”
The return leg is in Hong Kong next Saturday with the winner on aggregate staying in contention for the 20th and final ticket to Japan 2019, the first Rugby World Cup to be held in Asia.
As the higher ranked of the two teams by some 33 places and more than 15 points, newly-crowned Asia Rugby Championship (ARC) winners Hong Kong will be favourites to join Canada, Samoa or Germany and the yet to be determined Rugby Africa Gold Cup runner-up at the four-team repechage tournament.
Hong Kong’s undefeated run in the Asia Rugby Championship marked a successful first step on the road to Japan 2019, but the second is shaping up to be more sizeable, starting with a 25-hour trip to Rarotonga, the most populous island in the Cooks.
Coach Leigh Jones admits this weekend’s tie presents unique challenges but says Hong Kong have come well prepared.
Cook Islands claim underdog status ahead of Hong Kong clash | RNZ News: The Cook Islands have claimed underdog status for their rugby World Cup qualification playoff against Hong Kong tomorrow in Rarotonga. Source: Cook Islands claim underdog status… https://t.co/vcvWghfYi7 pic.twitter.com/OwoBUd9rUo— Pacific News (@NesianNews) June 30, 2018
Ready to go
“The players are ready to go. I am glad the game is this weekend, another week and the frustration may have started building, but the timing has been pretty good for us. We had a week to rest after the ARC and then two to three weeks to train and maintain intensity. We are in a good space,” he said.
Cook Islands had a circuitous route of their own to reach this stage. They lost to Tahiti in the Oceania Rugby Cup 2017, but that result was later overturned after Tahiti were found to have fielded ineligible players.
Ten long months have passed since that shock defeat, with team manager Cam Kilgour insisting the lack of game time makes his side firm underdogs.
“We’ve had no test match rugby beforehand. We’ve got a two-week preparation, or a week and a half preparation whereas Hong Kong have come off an Asia Rugby Championship,” he said.
Jones, though, knows that the Cook Islands will still pose his side a big challenge, regardless of any differences in preparation.
“We’ve done our research on their players and they have some quality. Guys playing Top 14 in France, Mitre Cup in New Zealand, guys who’ve played against the British Lions in Super Rugby, so it will be challenging, particularly in the forwards, but we are very aware of how tough it’s going to be,” insisted Jones.
“It’s cup rugby and we’re away from home, so we need to be smart, our discipline needs to be really good, our set piece needs to function, and we need to be playing in the right areas.
“The series will be decided on aggregate points across the two games, so we need to be really smart in how we manage the game and manage the crowd on Saturday.
“Not to overplay it, but it’s probably one of the most important games in Hong Kong rugby history.”
Big game experience
Otago hooker Sam Anderson-Heather (pictured above), who captained the New Zealand Barbarians against the British and Irish Lions in 2017, brings big game experience to the Cooks.
“He’s followed by everybody in this side so it’s great to have that experience and old head,” Kilgour said.
“Shahn (Eru) has played very well this year for his club (Perpignan) and got a number of man of the matches. He brings that professional experience that we need and he’s a very, very tall player.”
Even so, Kilgour says it would be “a miracle” if the Cook Islands could make it through to the repechage.
“We’re excited and I know the community over here are really excited so hopefully we can pull off a miracle.”