A strong display from the pack and a well-executed kicking game saw Russia dominate host nation Hong Kong for long periods and emerge as worthy winners in the final of the HKRU Cup of Nations.

Despite Hong Kong getting on the board first through a penalty from fly-half Ben Rimene in the third minute, Russia were on top from the outset and scored their first try when centre Igor Galinovsky finished off a multi-phase move. Fly-half Sergey Yanyushkin’s conversion was wide, giving Russia a 5-3 lead from the opening exchanges.

From then on, Russia kept Hong Kong on the back foot, pressurising the home side into conceding two more early penalties, both kicked by Yanyushkin, extending Russia’s lead to 11-3 after the first quarter.

In an attempt to restore parity up front, Hong Kong made two quick substitutions with hooker Alex Harris and second-row Paul Dwyer giving way to Jamie Tsang and Adrian Griffiths respectively.

“Our set piece didn't function early on and our lineout and scrum was a bit wobbly. As a result we couldn’t get on the front foot,” said Hong Kong coach Andy Hall. “If you can’t get the set piece right against a team like Russia, things are going to be difficult, so we made a few tactical substitutions early on in an attempt to be a bit more proactive. If something wasn’t working, we wanted to try and fix it immediately.”

The changes helped steady the ship midway through the first half and Hong Kong were awarded for a positive period of play with a second penalty, again converted by Rimene, leaving them trailing 11-6 after 27 minutes. 

Possession and territory

With Russia dominating in both the possession and territorial stakes, Hong Kong had to dig deep in defence. A valiant effort helped slow the visitors down, especially at the ruck, as Hong Kong kept the Russians off the scoreboard for the rest of the half. Rimene’s third penalty in the 38th minute clawed Hong Kong back to within two points at 11-9 at half-time.

Russia adroitly changed tactics in the second half, looking to play rugby in Hong Kong’s half with some solid tactical kicking that kept the hosts penned in for most of the final 40 minutes. The tactic worked brilliantly, as Russia pressurised Hong Kong’s wings with high balls, forcing the defence into conceding a penalty in the 44th minute, which was slotted over by Yanushkin.

Keeping their foot on the accelerator, Russia followed up with a quick-fire try from Artemyev four minutes later, again coming from a solid chase of the deep ball. Yanyushkin’s first conversion of the match gave the Bears a commanding 21-9 lead.

Hong Kong could only manage a penalty in reply as Rimene converted his fourth attempt to close the gap to 21-12 but the hosts never threatened to wrest the match off Russia.

The Russians finished well with Yanyushkin adding a drop goal in the 70th minute, followed by a try from reserve back Anton Sychev four minutes later. Yanyushkin’s second conversion gave him 14 points from his outing and brought Russia’s final margin of victory to 31-12.

“In the second half, we did well to put the ball behind their wingers. Once we got a bit of a lead, we knew Hong Kong would have to chase the game and that the pressure would be on them, which led to a few mistakes,” said Artemyev.

It was Russia’s second consecutive tour victory in Hong Kong after they defeated the hosts in last year’s two-match Ustinov Cup series.

Portugal punish tiring Sables

In the third place play-off, Zimbabwe stayed in contention for most of the first half, but the effects of three tests in eight days started to tell on the African forwards, who failed to match Portugal’s staying power.

After a penalty apiece, Portugal took the lead in the 32nd minute, scoring their first try through scrum-half Francisco Vieira who spotted a gap and raced home from 50 metres. Full-back Duarte Marques’ conversion pushed Portugal ahead 10-3.

Portugal struck again in the 37th minute when burly prop Bruno Rocha muscled his way over to establish a 15-3 lead at half-time.

The second half was more of the same as Portugal’s forwards used their weight advantage to good effect, scoring off a rolling maul from a lineout deep in Zimbabwe territory, number eight Francisco Sousa touching down in the 56th minute. Marques’ conversion pushed the lead to 22-3.

Tichafara Makwanya replied with his second penalty in the 63rd minute, but Portugal responded with a second try for Sousa. Marques’ conversion brought the score to 29-6 before centre Jose Lima crossed again a minute later. Marques’ third conversion left the score at 36-6 late in the match.

Zimbabwe grabbed a consolation try when reserve prop Nicolo Nyemba finished off a nice flowing move to bring the final score to 36-11.

Russia topped the Cup of Nations table on 13 points, followed by Hong Kong on nine and Portugal on six points, after collecting their second bonus point in two games. Zimbabwe propped up the table after failing to register a point.

“We were more practical today. We executed much better but I don’t think the score was an accurate reflection of where we are compared with Zimbabwe or Hong Kong,” said Portugal coach Olivier Baragnon, who credited improved execution for his side’s win.  

“Playing three tests against teams at this level is good for Portugal. Our players are young and a tournament like this gives us the opportunity to close the gap between international rugby and the level of the domestic competition at home.”

HKRU Cup of Nations results

Round 1: Hong Kong 30-11 Zimbabwe, Russia 23-12 Portugal
Round 2: Russia 50-5 Zimbabwe, Hong Kong 13-6 Portugal
Round 3: Portugal 36-11 Zimbabwe, Russia 31-12 Hong Kong

Photo credit: Ile Li