Second place in A5N up for grabs in Almaty
A tense three-way battle to claim second place lights up the final weekend of the HSBC Asian Five Nations 2009 Top 5 competition with Korea, Hong Kong and Kazakhstan all hoping to finish as runners-up to champions Japan.
Korea currently occupy that second spot, but their hopes of matching their position from the inaugural competition in 2008 are out of their hands after ending their campaign with a heavy 80-9 defeat by Japan last weekend to leave them with a record of won two, lost two and 13 points.
Kazakhstan (10) and Hong Kong (8) meet in Almaty on Sunday with the hosts knowing that any manner of victory will see them overtake the Koreans and make it three wins in 2009 and a vast improvement on fourth last year.
This gives them a slight edge as Hong Kong not only have to win but also secure a bonus point for scoring four tries because otherwise they would draw level with Korea on 13 points and have to settle for third again by virtue of having lost the head to head encounter 36-34.
Kazakhstan return to the scene of their surprise 30-27 upset of Korea in round two and will again look to their influential trio of captain and flanker Timur Mashurov, Anton Rudoy who slots in at number 8 and the prodigious boot of full back Maxim Lifontov.
'A cracker of a game'
"We are confident after the win against Korea and playing at home gives us a slight advantage. Hong Kong are a good side similar to Kazakhstan in a lot of ways. They play a much more intelligent brand of rugby and have players at nine and 10 who can control the game well," said long-serving Kazakhstan coach Valeriy Popov.
"Most of all, they will be prepared to an almost professional level. They have strength in depth and good technique across the park. It should be a cracker of a game."
The hosts should also benefit from a number of key individuals who have been helping the team prepare this week, including former Pumas prop Fernando Diaz who is now based in Almaty, former Ireland scrum half Steven McIvor and wing Denis Hickie and former Russian Sevens star Murat Umbayev.
"If we come second it will be great for us," added Popov. "However, it is still second place and our aim is to be the top team in Asia one day so this is only a step in the right direction."
Hong Kong head coach Dai Rees is also, understandly, looking forward to the encounter and the prospect of a positive finish to his first Top 5 campaign. The Welshman welcomes back Sevens stars Ricky Cheuk and Keith Robertson from injury to bolster a backline which contributed nine tries - including four for wing Adam Raby and centre Rowan Varty's hat-trick - in last weekend's 64-6 defeat of Singapore.
"This weekend I want us to concentrate on performance and the result will look after itself. Kazakhstan will be physical and robust at the set piece and contact area. We must play our own game and take away the physical element of their game, which they rely on heavily," insisted Rees, the former Wales Sevens coach.
Final outing for Singapore
"We must improve on and extend our performance from last week, make fewer mistakes and be more clinical when we create openings and scoring chances.
"It has been a very enjoyable first international competition for me. The improvement has been enormous over the last seven weeks and that has been down to the hard work, dedication of all the players and support staff, 95 percent of which hold down full time jobs away from rugby.
"This has translated into weekly improvement in each game and has given us the opportunity to finish second behind Japan in the HSBC Asian Five Nations 2009. I have really enjoyed my first season in Hong Kong, I can see areas that we will continue to improve, both on and off the field, which will go a long way to making us a prominent and consistent force in Asian rugby."
In the weekend's other match, a brave Singapore will bow out of the Top 5 by hosting champions at the Yio Chu Kang Stadium on Saturday. As the only fully amateur team in the Top 5, Singapore can look back with pride on some good performances and will rue the narrow loss against Kazakhstan at home two weeks ago that would have helped their cause.
The Arabian Gulf will replace Singapore in next year's Top 5 as the winners of the Division I tournament in Dubai in April, so ending Singapore's Rugby World Cup dream with the 2010 competition to determine Asia's sole entry for New Zealand 2011.
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