Hong Kong became the sixth team to confirm their place at the World Rugby U20 Trophy 2017 after winning their fourth successive Asia Rugby U19 Championship, beating Malaysia 67-10 in Kuala Lumpur.
They had already defeated Chinese Taipei (54-8) and Sri Lanka (61-0) before Saturday’s nine-try victory, as they cruised through the regional age-grade championship for a fourth time on the trot.
Hong Kong will join Asian rivals Japan, who drop down to the second-tier U20 competition following their bottom-placed finish at the U20 Championship, with hosts Uruguay, South American qualifiers Chile, Oceania champions Fiji and African champions Namibia also assured of their place at the tournament in Montevideo.
The remaining places in the eight-team tournament will be filled by the European champions and the winner of a play-off between Canada and USA.
As they had done throughout the tournament, Hong Kong asserted their superiority from start to finish against Malaysia. If not for the horrendous conditions early on, with heavy rain turning the pitch into a quagmire and the game halted due to lightning, Hong Kong would have likely posted an even larger margin, as their repeated line breaks were foiled more by the poor footing than the Malaysian defence.
RAMAGE ON THE RAMPAGE
Flanker Gregor Ramage stood out in another impressive team performance, opening the scoring in both halves with tries, and coming inches away from completing his hat-trick late in the game. The tries were just reward for an impressive work-rate that saw him named man of the match.
Matt Worley added three first half penalties, before Kyle Kitney crossed for Hong Kong’s second try. Worley added the extras and converted a fourth penalty in the half to bring the score to 24-3 at the break.
The second half started similarly to the first as Hong Kong immediately marched into Malaysian territory with Ramage capping off a solid driving ruck by diving over from close range for his second try.
With the pitch firming up underneath, Hong Kong were able to up their attacking intensity, scoring six more second-half tries after Ramage’s effort.
Centre James Karton added a brace, as did reserve back Daniel Pusack, who scored two tries in quick succession with almost his first two touches of the game.
Number eight Max Denmark showed an impressive blend of size, speed and silky handling to create late tries for forward Jack Scanlon and fly-half Cameron Smith as Hong Kong ran up the score to 67-10 before the finish.
Karton converted the final try as time expired, leaving Worley with four penalties and four conversions from Saturday’s finale and bringing his points haul to 60 across the Championship’s three matches.
DREWETT HAILS HIS YOUNG HEROES
Head coach Pete Drewett was upbeat after seeing his side defend their title with a group of 17-year olds included in the squad and just six returning players from last year’s competition.
“It’s been an outstanding week for the players. If we look at where they started and finished, it's been a great success in terms of player development,” he said.
“The team showed a lot of maturity. Conditions prevented us from playing the tempo game we were after and the players had to work that out for themselves. They had to trust that if they kept doing what they were doing it would come right and we’d break them down and eventually we did.
“This is my third season at this level and there has been some good talent coming through, so much so that a number of young players are now getting senior caps and standing out in Premiership rugby. So, it’s really exciting to see the 17 year olds come in and perform well.
“If you add that to the large number of recent graduates capped in the last year, it’s even more exciting. If these players can stay in Hong Kong and stay together for the next 10 years then the future looks very good.”
"En el World Rugby U20 Trophy 2017 jugarán Uruguay (anfitrión), Japón (descendido del Championship), Chile (Sudamérica Rugby), Hong Kong (Asia), Fiji (Oceanía) y Namibia (África). Faltan definir los representantes de Europa y Rugby Americas North."
TROPHY KEY TO PLAYER PATHWAY
Drewett led Hong Kong to their first-ever victory in the U20 Trophy in Zimbabwe earlier this year, beating the host nation 44-40 in the seventh-place play-off, and recognises its importance in the player development pathway.
“Playing in the Trophy over the past few years has played a huge part in seasoning players. Being able to compete at a higher level shows them what is required in terms of high performance behaviour, managing themselves on and off pitch and the strength and conditioning commitments required to be senior internationals," he said.
“As coaches we are in a much better position to assess after we have taken teams to the World Trophy. The intensity of that competition gives us a better idea of how players react to that pressure and on the back of that competition we are in a better position to make recommendations about which players could advance to Leigh Jones’ elite rugby programme and hopefully on to senior caps.
“These tournaments are part of the jigsaw that helps us to create a smooth pathway for players to advance along - if they are prepared to work hard and take their opportunities.”
Chinese Taipei finished as the runners-up, while Sri Lanka, who had an intense build-up to the competition and were widely tipped as the top contenders, struggled to a third-place finish but at least retained their spot in the top flight for next year. Malaysia, the surprise package of the week, fell short in their bid to remain in the elite level and will be relegated to Division I next year.
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