USRC Tigers bid to close the gap on league front-runners Valley Black and Gai Wu Falcons took a hit last week when they forfeited their match due to a lack of numbers, a problem that will persist this weekend when they visit CWB Phoenix, with the Hong Kong Women’s Sevens team in New Zealand for a training camp and the U19s team on tour in Singapore.
“We are still struggling with our numbers, as around 10 players are missing with either the Hong Kong Sevens team or the national U19s in Singapore, so we are bringing in some players from our NL1 side. I am confident they can handle it,” said coach Liu Kwok Leung.
Liu has prepared his side for the uptick in international competitions this season: “Fortunately, we anticipated the demands of the national teams on our squad before the season. Over the summer, we focused on a lot of development work to bring new players into the NL1 set-up, who can now feed through into that team, while the stronger players get run-outs in the first team.”
“It’s another chance for the newer players to get their experience in first team roles. They are good enough to play at this level, but they just need experience. This is a good opportunity for them to step up and press their claim for more permanent spots,” says Liu.
While some coaches have complained about the impact of the increasing national team commitments on the league, Liu remains supportive.
“The competitiveness and demands on players at national-level forces clubs to bring up new players. We have had to recruit and develop a lot of new players and that is good for the game in the long-run. Without that [commitment] it is hard to maintain two functioning teams,” Liu added.
Adrift of the league leaders by 20 points, Liu is realistic about his side’s chances to contest the league after finishing second last season.
“With our numbers what they are, there is not much we can do about our league standing so we are now focusing 100% on the Grand Finals. The coaching team has the same goal and same target to have the best possible team fit and ready for that competition,” Liu added.
Some respite came for Tigers with the news that all of their injured players have now passed fit for the weekend ahead and Liu is expecting a stiff challenge from the fifth-seeded Phoenix.
“We will use this game and the rest of the league fixtures to prepare for the Grand Final. It gives us an opportunity to test our strongest combinations for the end of season. Causeway Bay are really physical in the contact area. They have some good players from the international schools and they run hard.
I saw them play against Kowloon [14-12 win for CWB on 21 Jan] and was impressed. Our focus in training this week has been on making our tackles count. If we can stop their attack, and keep the ball in our hands, we can make use of our own capability in attack,” Liu added.
For their part, Causeway Bay will enter this weekend’s tie with a temporary advantage, in being able to run out a settled side against Tigers.
“We have no national squad players in this team, so that evens things up a bit when Hong Kong teams are in action, like now. Tigers have some good players missing, so that gives us an advantage,” said coach Ocean Chow.
Like his counterpart Liu, Chow is focusing the team on preparing for the Grand Championships.
“As the league will finish soon, we are targeting the knockout stages in the Grand Championships. This game is like a knockout for us and I want our players to treat this match as preparation for the Grand Championship knock-out stages. We still have a chance to advance to the semi-finals,” said Chow.
Despite coming off a lengthy period of inaction, Chow is excited about the looming grand final stages, saying, “Everything is in play. All the players have taken a good rest over the New Year break and we don’t have any injury problems.
“This will be a difficult game as Tigers are a strong side, but I think we can handle them. If we win, we still have a chance to get into the top four in the league,” noted Chow.
“We’ll play our own style, using our backline and feeding through to the wings. We like to counterattack, so we’ll be looking to take advantage of that any time we get possession,” Chow added.
Additional reporting: HKrugby
Image: Panda Man