The crystal waters of Hong Kong harbour were lit by a searing November sun as unseasonably warm weather and clear azure skies illuminated the island metropolis; and the gilded brass of the Hong Kong Football Club glittered to mark the arrival of the SRFC Black Squad. Marching in formation, our players tunnelled under the Happy Valley race course and out onto the high-tech rubber green arena, dramatically framed by towering metallic shards of skyscrapers and the forest green ridges of the mountainscape beyond.
Working in small organised units, the players were drilled under the watchful eye of coach Murray as the heat beat down and beads of sweat moistened the parched rubber. With the anticipation building and the stands starting to fill, our men came together into huddle formation. Game plan prepared and understood, hearts racing but minds clear, the Shanghai black squad were ready for war – and as an all-star cast of Hong Kong rugby’s finest assembled themselves in the opposite half, surely nothing would deny our men. With a final rallying call from passionate lock forward Chavanis, the players spread into kick receiving formation. And the whistle blew.
Frantic covering defence, full-blooded carries and a flood of nervous energy characterised a chaotic opening period. Confusion reigned, but out of the madness broke Balloch. A burst of power took him clear of his marker and a mad rush of speed took him over the line. With a simple conversion, Shanghai were seven points ahead and the ideal start was made. But could they maintain it? More confusion and more space. Tackles flew in at players from every angle and, occasionally, were swatted away again. Gaps were torn open and the space outside was flooded. Winning back possession, Shanghai looked to have weathered a Hong Kong storm, but an intercepted pass saw a navy and white speedster tear through the heart of our backs and over the line: an ominous mistake ruthlessly punished. The team came together under the posts as the kick flew over.
Struggling for breath they steeled themselves to go again. And again it was Balloch who took the initiative, shrugging off the scrambling Hong Kong defence he broke clear. The forward pack rumbled forward, phase after phase. Scrum half Lopez sniped at the fringes. The line grew nearer and finally Coquillard was able to dive through to score Shanghai’s second try. Another straightforward conversion and Shanghai were again seven points ahead. And back came Hong Kong. Moving the ball quickly, running elusively and scrummaging murderously, they gradually took a strangle hold on the game. Territory was mercilessly conquered as more tackles were broken by the oversized Hong Kong units. The new blood players in the Shanghai forwards were being given a baptism of fire by the experienced Hong Kong guard. In retreat, our line was broken again and the navy and white shirts of Hong Kong stormed our wide defence to take their second try, but a missed conversion kept us in a narrow lead.
With Hong Kong wrestling the life out of the game, it appeared to be only a matter of time before they dispatched the black squad. Cometh the hour, cometh the men. In the depths of adversity and deep in our half Ashton claimed loose lineout ball and danced through a fleeting gap, galloping into centre field. A bruising Hong Kong center partnership was spliced in two by the flying Massie. The hulking figure of Samoan prop Elani crashed through a sea of defenders. Coquillard demanded the ball and broke the wide channel. Racing around the outside Tuimaga and Lane combined to add searing pace to the Shanghai attack. Chavanis, McCoy and Almeras were hunting as a pack around the breakdowns and demolished a ruck contest. The Shanghai men simply wouldn’t be denied. After hammering their way up the length of the field, the ball was released to the opposite wing and Lane completed the move he’d helped to start by flying over in the corner. With a knock out blow delivered, Shanghai then suffered a set back of their own when the influential Massie emerged from the bottom of a heap of bodies (that he’d just toppled) with a fractued ankle.
With the energetic Chadwick drafted into the back line, Shanghai then had to endure a rough period and conceded another try under the posts, which was duly converted. Shanghai bounced back to settle any remaining nerves with a series of well timed tackles, particularly from the the back row, as well as Zunic and Bois. Defensive frailties were eradicated once and for all; and with possession reclaimed, another series of aggressive lateral attacks opened the heart of the Hong Kong defence and brought our men into sight of their line. Rejecting the possibility of points in front of the posts, Lopez tapped and stormed into a defensive wall and after a few recycle phases, and with Lopez trapped in the bottom of a ruck, Shanghai improvised down the blind side, with Tuimaga squeezing into the corner for the try. The missed conversion was soon forgotten as again Shanghai crossed the Hong Kong try line, this time Ashton applied the finish after breaking a heavy tackle. Half time and Shanghai held the advantage.
Reinforcements came from the bench with Saunal adding bulk and guile to the midfield and Bird recharging the energy in the loose forwards. Desperate not to see momentum shift again, Shanghai opened the second half brightly but Hong Kong also looked reinvigorated. Required to defend solidly, efficient tackling on the fringes from the likes of Lopez, Bois, Balloch and Ashton kept Hong Kong at bay. With Shanghai quickly adapting to Hong Kong’s speed to the breakdown, possession was recycled well and the hard work was eventually rewarded with another Balloch try in the corner. An impressive touchline effort from Coquillard raised the referees flags under the posts and Shanghai had reached 38 points. With another set of reinforcements flooding on from the Hong Kong bench and almost a thirty minutes left to play the game was far from over, however. Possessing an embarrassment of riches on their bench, Hong Kong had men enough for three full teams. In desperation, they turned to their most talented players and with Shanghai legs wearying, the momentum turned in Hong Kong’s favour again.
Long periods of possession were claimed by the navy and whites. Shanghai stood resolutely, tackled ferociously, covered tirelessly and equipped themselves admirably. Brayshaw, Lentz and Masquelin brought solidity and impetus from the bench, while old boy Grant was later sent into the fray to boost the tackle count. Coquillard improvised an opportunity with a well placed grubber kick, Chadwick tore after the ball, shimmied along the touch line and gathered the but was agonisingly unable to keep his foot off the white powder before touching down and a lineout was given. Now deep in our own territory and with the tired Shanghai defence getting increasingly desperate, Saunal was soon sent to the sin bin, while captain Lopez suffered a dislocated shoulder. With Schenk on as cover for Lopez and another Hong Kong attack smothered, however, it soon became clear that Shanghai would emerge victorious and despite Hong Kong’s best efforts late in the game, our defensive line simply refused to surrender any more points. This was a tremendous and heartening effort against a highly regimented Hong Kong outfit on a day which saw the Shanghai boys in black become a team of men.
Shanghai RFC Black Squad deservedly return with the Links Interport Cup! Thanks to everyone involved in this game. In particular, to Mark Ralph for funding the drink vouchers for all players and tourists after the game. As can be imagined, the squad celebrated as hard as they played. The rest of the day was spent enjoying the performances of some lesser teams in fixtures held subsequent to our victory. On display were an outfit from French Top 14 side Racing Metro and the national teams of Hong Kong and Russia. International players including Casey Lualua and Dimitri Szarzewski were lucky enough to have photos taken with some of the Shanghai players on a day which will be remembered for many years to come.
Hong Kong details. Try scorers for Vandals: Jimmy Richards, Niall Rowark and Matt Worley plus two conversions by Niall Rowark. Captain; Pete Tattersall, Coach; Dave Egerton, Manager; Sean Purdie
Hong Kong vs Shanghai Modern Interport Fixtures
Front row (L to R): Edward Chadwick, Paul Saunal, Andre Coquillard, Colin Murray,Ryan Abraham, Sam Schenk, Caleb Balloch, Sam Critchley, Tom Bird, Antoine Bois
Back row: Mark Ralph, Fernand Masquelin, Harris Grant, Mathias Lentz, WesleyElani, Bruce Ashton, Joshua Lane, Junior Tuimauga, Richard Brayshaw, Renaud Chavanis, Josko Zunic.
(Not in picture: Mark McCoy, Remy Almeras, Cameron Massie, Thibault Lopez (all at hospital).)
15 Andre Coquillard
14 Joshua Lane
13 Cameron Massie
12 Sam Critchley
11 Junior Tuimauga
10 Antoine Bois
9 Thibault Lopez (captain)
1 Josko Zunic
2 Ryan Abraham
3 Wesley Elani
4 Renaud Chavanis
5 Mark McCoy
6 Remy Almeras
7 Caleb Balloch
8 Bruce Ashton
16 Mathias Lentz (53' for Zunic)
17 Fernand Masquelin (62' for McCoy)
18 Tom Bird (40' for Almeras)
19 Harris Grant (70' for Abraham)
20 Sam Schenk (74' for Lopez)
21 Richard Brayshaw (68' for Chadwick)
22 Paul Saunal (40' for Critchley)
23 Edward Chadwick (26' for Massie)
Manager: Mark Ralph, Coach: Colin Murray
Tries: Balloch (2), Coquillard, Lane, Tuimauga, Ashton
Conversions: Critchley (3), Coquillard
A return fixture was held in Hong Kong on 15 November 2014. Match report and photo below.