Asia's elite begin race for RWC 2011 spot
The HSBC Asian 5 Nations Top 5 kicks off this weekend with
the added significance of the champions becoming the 19th and
penultimate qualifier for Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand.
Japan, Kazakhstan, Hong Kong, Korea and the Arabian Gulf will compete over the next five weekends for the crown and a place alongside hosts New Zealand, France, Tonga and Canada in Pool A.
Defending champions Japan are the favourites to clinch another Top 5 crown, given their standing as Asia's top side in the IRB World Rankings in 13th and the region's only side to grace the Rugby World Cup stage.
However, the possibility exists for another Asian side to break Japan's stranglehold at rugby's showpiece tournament with the runner up to enter the cross-continental play-off to determine the final qualifier for the World Cup.
Uruguay will initially await the Top 5 runner up in July with the winner of this encounter to face either a European representative (be it Romania, Lithuania or Ukraine) or African side Tunisia for the right to enter Pool B.
Hong Kong optimistic
Japan will sit out the first round on matches on Saturday, which will see Hong Kong host 2008 runners up Korea and the Arabian Gulf travel to Almaty to face Kazakhstan, who impressed last year to finish second behind the Japanese.
The encounter in Hong Kong is likely to prove decisive to both nations' hopes of qualifying for a first Rugby World Cup and will be one to watch if it matches the thrilling affair they played out 12 months ago.
Korea emerged victorious that day, although only after withstanding a Hong Kong charge that saw them score four tries and 24 unanswered points in the final 20 minutes to narrowly lose 36-34.
Hong Kong Director of Elite Coaching Dai Res insists though that Rugby has come a long way in the territory since then as a result of the strategic direction he has put in place with the Union, including the integration of the Sevens players into the 15-a-side squad.
"We have to be optimistic about the A5N. I am lucky enough to have been in the job for 18 months and have an A5N under my belt so I know the opposition and I have been able to spend 18 months with the squad," the former Wales Age Grade and Sevens coach told Total Rugby Radio.
"Last year, after the Hong Kong Sevens, about eight or nine of the squad left, whereas this year at least 10 of the Hong Kong Sevens squad will be part of the A5N squad, and that is something we have developed over the past year."
Rees is aware that Japan - Hong Kong's final opponent's in this year's Asian 5 Nations - are the team to beat and although his main aim is to finish in the top two, if Hong Kong can win their first three matches, this would leave an interesting play-off for the automatic RWC 2011 place on 22 May in Tokyo.
"We will all compete against Japan, but as we know all around the world the professional game has added time, skill development and time in the gym to the professional system and Japan are a professional system. Our guys are very much part-time, they get up at seven, go the gym and are in work by nine," added Rees.
"Physically Japan always come through in the last 30 minutes of an A5N game and they are very much the powerbase of Asian rugby, but based on their club structure and their 12 professional teams.
"We are capable of beating Korea, Kazakhstan and Arabian Gulf, and maybe that leaves Tokyo as the play-off for the automatic qualification place. But we are looking to finish in the top two to give ourselves a chance of going through in the Répechage."
Hong Kong have only beaten Korea twice in 10 meetings and will be desperate not to gift their visitors a 24 point head start inside 17 minutes as in 2009. Number 8 Han Kun-kyu was a standout player that day and will hope to repeat his brace of tries again as part of a new-look Korean outfit.
"We have changed half the squad from last year," admitted Korean coach Kim Myoung Joo. "They might be new faces but I believe they have the potential to win any match and we are giving them the opportunity. Our aim is to win this tournament. Japan will be difficult opponents but we will do our best."
Target remains same for Kazakhs
The weekend's other match will see Arabian Gulf hoping to avoid a repeat of the 56-27 defeat by Kazakhstan in 2008 which saw them relegated to Division I, only to bounce back by winning the A5N second tier last year.
Kazakhstan's focus this time around will not be avoiding relegation, but the battle to secure runners up spot and with it a place in the final phase of Rugby World Cup 2011 qualifying later this year.
They are no strangers to that position, having highlighted their standing as one of Asia's most improving nations by beating Korea 30-27 and Hong Kong 25-6 for the first time in their history to claim second spot last year.
Those victories came at home in Almaty, but while captain Timur Mashurov is aware the corresponding fixtures this year will be harder, like Rees he has also set his sights on a top two finish to continue their RWC dream.
"This year will be more difficult because we will be playing away games against Korea and Hong Kong," Mashurov, who is now fully fit after being plagued by knee injuries in recent seasons, told Total Rugby.
One game at a time
"Plus the first game against the Arabian Gulf should be tough as well, as we will have to gather speed and go on and on and on. Our aim is to come second this year and play the final qualifier for the World Cup against Uruguay.
"The biggest game will be against the Arabian Gulf on 24 April. We have to start there and win the first game and then go to Korea and Hong Kong. We have to go gradually from game to game."
The side finishing bottom in this year's Top 5 already know that they will be replaced by Sri Lanka in 2011, after they became the latest to take their place among Asia's elite nation after beating hosts Singapore 23-16 in the Division I final last weekend.
Meanwhile, in Europe there are two other matches which form part of the Rugby World Cup 2011 qualifying process with Ukraine travelling to Moldova and Belgium hosting Poland in Division 2A of the European Nations Cup.
Ukraine have already confirmed their position as champions to set up a meeting with Lithuania in the latest of a series of European play-off rounds, the winner of this to face Romania home and away for the right to enter the cross-continental play-off.