Asia's best target RWC 2011 place
The qualifying focus for Rugby World Cup 2011 now switches to Asia with Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, Hong Kong and the Arabian Gulf set to kick-start their final push when the HSBC Asian 5 Nations Top 5 begins on 24 April.
Japan go into the elite tier of the Asian 5 Nations competition looking for a third successive title, an outcome which will see them qualify for RWC 2011 as Asia 1 to join hosts New Zealand, France, Tonga and Canada in Pool A.
The runner up will enter the cross-continental play-off, where Uruguay initially awaits them in July. Whoever emerges from this will face either Tunisia or Romania home and away to determine the 20th and final qualifier for New Zealand 2011.
The only Asian side to grace the Rugby World Cup stage, Japan will be favourites to claim a third successive Asian 5 Nations title, but the battle for second place is likely to a close-run affair between 2009 runners up Kazakhstan, Korea and Hong Kong.
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Two of these rivals - Hong Kong and Korea - meet on the opening weekend of a Top 5 competition which runs over five consecutive weekends until 22 May and will again be broadcast across the region on ESPN Star Sports, having been broadcast to over 220 millions homes last year.
Korea, the runners up in the inaugural competition in 2008, edged their thrilling encounter 36-34 on home soil in Incheon last year, albeit only just scored 24 unanswered points in the last quarter of the match.
Kazakhstan, who beat both Korea and Hong Kong in 2009, face Arabian Gulf on the opening weekend with Japan enjoying a bye. Arabian Gulf returned to the Top 5 after winning Division I last year and replace Singapore in the elite tier.
The Asian 5 Nations 2010 - which features four other divisions and a regional tournament - was launched in Hong Kong on Wednesday with England's record try-scorer Rory Underwood and former Scotland coach Frank Hadden in attendance.
"This year there really is everything to play for in the Asian 5 Nations with the winner of the Top 5 going to Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand and the runners up entering a Répechage," said Underwood, an HSBC A5N Ambassador.
Fireworks in Top 5
"The competitiveness of the Top 5 in the A5N has gone from strength to strength over the past few years, but this year with the added incentive of qualification for the Rugby World Cup we are expecting some absolute cracking matches.
"Japan versus Korea is always a big game, but this year with all to play for and a berth in New Zealand on offer, there is going to be some fireworks."
Nobby Mashimo, Vice President and Chairman of the Japan Rugby Football Union and IRB Council Member, added: "The Asian 5 Nations is especially significant for all of us. For one, it shall determine the qualifiers for Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand.
"But more than this, the Asian 5 Nations tournament is truly vital to the expansion of the game of rugby both in Asia and throughout the world. It gives our players the opportunity to cultivate their strength and raise their skills in rugby to world-class standards."
The third edition of the Asian 5 Nations will see a new Division IV introduced involving Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Jordan, although their will be no relegation from this tier in the first year.
Battle for promotion
Division IV will take place in early June in Bishkek with the winner promoted to Division III for 2011. This year's edition will run at the same time as their new tier in Jakarta involving Guam, Pakistan, Iran and hosts Indonesia.
A few days earlier, China, India, Thailand and 2009 Division III winners the Philippines will battle for the Division II honours at the Delhi University Rugby Stadium in India.
The first Asian 5 Nations action of 2010 will be provided by Division I in mid-April with Chinese Taipei, Sri Lanka, Singapore and promoted side Malaysia looking to secure their place among the elite nations in 2011.
As well as the five tiers of competition, a Regional tournament involving Laos, Qatar, Cambodia and Brunei will take place in Phnom Penh in late June.
Lebanon, who became a new Asian Rugby Football Union associate member along with UAE in December 2009, will play Jordan in a curtain raiser to Arabian Gulf's match with Korea at 'The Sevens' in Dubai on 14 May.
Developing at grassroots level
The 2010 Asian 5 Nations will also have a focus on developing rugby at grassroots level with Youth Rugby Festivals to be held in Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, Dubai, Bahrain, Indonesia, India, Cambodia and Nepal over the coming months.
At the helm of this initiative is Hadden, who from April until June will act as a coaching advisor working with national teams and Unions across Asia as well as helping to plan and execute the development programmes at these Youth Festivals.
"Grassroots initiatives are absolutely everything for the development of rugby," explained Hadden, who coached Scotland from 2005 to 2009. "I have been involved at the very top end of the sport for a long time now and it is great to come back to the grassroots and get involved in the developmental level.
"We hope to introduce the positive values and excitement of rugby to thousands of youths in over 10 countries over the next three months. The idea of holding HSBC Asian 5 Nations Youth Festivals around Asia is absolutely sensational and really bodes well for the growth of the game and the future of the game in this region."
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