Qualifying for England 2015 to resume in Asia
The race to qualify for Rugby World Cup 2015 resumes in Asia this weekend with Kazakhstan, Chinese Taipei, Thailand and hosts Sri Lanka battling it out for the HSBC Asian 5 Nations Division I title in Colombo.
The four teams will play in a round robin format over three match days at Havelocks RFC, starting on Sunday when Kazakhstan take Thailand and Sri Lanka tackle a young Chinese Taipei side.
Only the side securing the Division I title come 6 April will remain in the hunt for Rugby World Cup 2015 qualification, earning promotion to the Top 5 for 2014 which will determine the Asia 1 qualifier who will slot into Pool B at England 2015.
Kazakhstan and Sri Lanka both have experience of the top tier of the Asian 5 Nations pyramid in recent years, the latter in 2011 and the Kazakhs suffering relegation from the Top 5 for the first time last year.
They will be favourites to challenge for promotion and their match on 6 April could prove decisive in determining the side to join the region’s elite nations like perennial RWC qualifiers Japan in the Top 5.
The Top 5 is the only other tier of the Asian 5 Nations which is part of the qualification process in 2013 and Japan will be seeking to continue their record of always securing bonus point victories in the competition’s history.
Development key for Japan
That said, coach Eddie Jones will look to blend their desire for retaining the title with widening his talent pool as Japan build towards the expanded IRB Pacific Nations Cup and two Tests with Wales.
“We need to further develop our squad so I anticipate at least a 20 per cent change in personnel from last season,” explained Jones. “A couple of our senior players are also playing Super Rugby this season which will give the youngsters a wonderful chance to step up.”
Japan will begin their title defence against Top 5 newcomers the Philippines in Fukuoka on 20 April before travelling to face Hong Kong and 2012 runners-up Korea, the surprise package of last year on their first season back in the top tier.
“We know Hong Kong will be well coached and we know the Philippines will also be hard to beat as a number of their players figure in the top league in Australia and Japan, but our target is to win the championship by playing the Japan way – good attacking rugby,” added Jones.
Hong Kong, with its limited base of players, will have to balance their ambitions of trying to become a core team on the HSBC Sevens World Series in 2013/14 with their aim of remaining in the Top 5 to ensure they are still in the RWC 2015 picture.
“We will have to take a decision closer to the date as to what we do, but it will be a fine balancing act,” said Dai Rees, the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union’s head of performance. “We need to win two games to make certain of our standing in this competition next season.”
Asian success story
The Philippines, promoted to the elite tier after winning Division I on home soil in 2012, are the biggest success story in Asian rugby in recent years, having been in the bottom tier of the Asian 5 Nations pyramid as recent as 2008.
It is not only in Fifteens where the Philippines have been making waves, the country’s Sevens team having qualified for Rugby World Cup Sevens 2013 by finishing third in the Asian qualifier last year, becoming the first Filipino national sporting team to reach a World Cup.
With a clutch of players involved in top grade rugby in Australia or playing in Japan’s professional league, the Philippines could be a dangerous side if everything clicks and will target their encounter with the United Arab Emirates as a must-win match .
The Asian 5 Nations, though, is about more than just the elite nations with four other divisions in the pyramid, with relegation and promotion in place between them.
Divisions II and III will again take place in Kuala Lumpur over a five-day period between 4-8 June. Singapore, Malaysia, Iran and Division III champions India will contest Division II at the Petaling Jaya Stadium, while China, Guam, Indonesia and Qatar – winners of Division IV in 2011 and 2012 – battle for Division III honours.
Pakistan, Lebanon, Uzbekistan and Laos – winners of Division V three times – will contest Division IV, which will be held in the build-up to the UAE v Japan Top 5 encounter at 7he Sevens in Dubai in mid-May. The bottom tier of the Asian 5 Nations pyramid will this year involve a two-Test series between Brunei and hosts Cambodia in July.