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​Hong Kong lost against Japan 22-24 in a thrilling encounter that saw Japan hold off a spirited second half comeback by Hong Kong to claim the inaugural East Asia Cup.

Hong Kong, playing in their first ever international rugby league match, started off slowly in the first half, struggling with a high error count and low set completion rate that allowed Japan to dominate territory and possession. Japanese hooker Kazuki Fukushige and half back Kenshin Tsutsui controlled the game well, Fukushige in particular causing Hong Kong plenty of problems with his quick snipes out from dummy half. Japan raced ahead to a 14-0 lead through scores by Fukushige, Itaru Matuso and Tsutsui, who scored collected his own kick to go over for a brilliant individual score. Hong Kong looked to gain back some possession through some strong running in the middle and eventually scored their first ever international try through barnstorming forward Ben Ryan, who was a standout performer from both sides. However, another score just before half time by Japan’s Kohei Ishikawa meant Japan went into half time a comfortable 4-20 up.

Another score for Japan by Royoji Kitabayashi at the start of the second half meant the score line was beginning to look ominous for Hong Kong. However, a knock on by Japan on the Hong Kong 30 proved to be the turning point for the game. From the resulting scrum, Hong Kong worked their way downfield allowing Hong Kong’s youngest player and half back Gus Spence to weave through a gap in the defence to touchdown. Spence, despite his age and relative lack of size, was one of Hong Kong’s best players showcasing an array of wonderful distribution and kicking to get his team going. The score sparked the Hong Kong team into life and was the catalyst for a thrilling 30 minute performance.

Encouraged and cheered on by a passionate and increasingly vocal home crowd, Hong Kong began to impose their physical superiority with a number of big runs and tackles. Hong Kong got another score when ex-Sydney Rooster Toby Lei crashed over front short range and the team looked well on course for a spectacular comeback, with the noise from the crowd acting as a 14th man. Another score quickly followed when a great interchange between forwards Lei and Ryan allowing the latter to crash over, bringing the score to 22-24 with just six minutes to go. However, Hong Kong couldn’t create the final score and Japan held on to claim a historic win.

“It’s real mixed emotions for us. I think probably the first half we were a bit fazed by the occasion and the lack of experience showed. But the second half was an incredible effort. We started to focus on set completions and just kept fighting, and I think we can be incredibly proud of the spirit we showed. And to have that support at the game in our first ever game was unforgettable. They really drove us on,” said Hong Kongcaptain Ringo Lung. “There are things we need to work out on the pitch, but this is just the first step in our journey and we’ll learn huge amounts from today”.

“Although we didn’t get the win, everyone can be hugely proud of what we achieved today. To host our first international, broadcast to over 20,000 people and with such passionate home support was simply incredible – we’ve created sporting history” said HKRL Chairman Neville Metcalfe. “Hopefully what we produced today was a great advert for rugby league, for both our local audience as well as on the international scene. We want people to stand up, take notice and hopefully support what we’re doing and we think we managed to achieve that today”.

Hong Kong – 22 (4)
Tries: Ben Ryan (2), Gus Spence, Toby Lei
Goals: Kin Chong (3)
Japan – 24 (20)
Tries: Kazuki Fukushige, Itaru Matuso, Kenshin Tsutsui, Kohei Ishikawa, Royoji Kitabayashi
Goals: Dai Fujitaka (2)
Referee: Robert McDonald (Australia)