Sri Lanka and Kazakhstan set up decider
Sri Lanka and Kazakhstan have set up a title deciding showdown on Saturday after overcoming Thailand and Chinese Taipei respectively in their HSBC Asian 5 Nations Division I encounters in Colombo.
The hosts are the only unbeaten side with a maximum 12 points after beating Thailand 45-7 at Havelocks RFC on Wednesday, but cannot celebrate just yet because Kazakhstan can still pip them to the title and promotion to the Top 5 in 2014.
Kazakhstan bounced back from their opening day shock loss to Thailand to beat Chinese Taipei 42-10, learning valuable lessons from the defeat as they contend with high temperatures – a far cry from the minus temperatures and snow they left back home.
To deny Sri Lanka the title, Kazakhstan must beat their hosts and score four or more tries, while also denying their opponents a losing or try bonus point. Anything less and Sri Lanka will be crowned champions on home soil.
The added prize for the champions is they will remain in the hunt for a place at Rugby World Cup 2015 as the Top 5 next year will determine the Asia 1 qualifier to join South Africa, Samoa, Scotland and Americas 2 in Pool B.
“We have one more step to take before we can start celebrating,” said Sri Lanka captain Yoshitha Rajapaksa. “But I’m happy with the way we are playing. It was a much-improved performance from our opening game.”
An exhilarating display of open rugby from Sri Lanka’s fleet-footed backs, who accounted for all of the tries, plus a dominant pack which ruled the set pieces, gave Sri Lanka the freedom to rule before a capacity crowd of 4,800.
Change of strategy
If their opening 39-8 win over Chinese Taipei was a Jekyll-and-Hyde performance – the side only coming alive in the second half with five tries – the Thailand performance was complete, although Sri Lanka seemed to take the foot off the pedal once they scored their fourth try.
Wing Sandun Herath and centre Pradeep Liyanage grabbed a brace each, while scrum half Roshan Weerarathna and wing Chamara Dabare also dotted down. ugby. Full back Reza Mubarak was also in fine form with the boot, kicking three penalties and three conversions.
A change in strategy off the pitch meanwhile helped Kazakhstan regain confidence and composure on the pitch as they banished memories of that first ever loss to Thailand by convincingly beating Chinese Taipei in the day’s opening match.
Full back Maxim Lifontov gave a master-class in goal-kicking as he knocked over six penalties and two conversions to collect a personal haul of 22 points as Kazakhstan overcame the torrid temperatures of Colombo.
Unlike in their opening game, Kazakhstan warmed up in the air-conditioned comfort of their dressing room and only came out minutes before the kick-off fresh.
“We have been training early in the morning, at six am, and trying to avoid staying in the sun as much as possible. I think we are also getting used to the heat and it showed in a much-improved performance today,” said Kazakhstan coach Timur Mashurov.
Kazakhstan led 26-0 at the break thanks to a much-improved performance from the forwards led strongly by flanker Oleg Guselnikov, who had played scrum half against Thailand, and number 8 and captain Serik Zhanseitov.
"Our fate is in our hands"
Two early penalties from Lifontov settled nerves before tries from centre Alexandr Zakharov, fly half Daulet Akymbekov and Zhanseitov extended the lead with Lifontov adding a conversion and another penalty.
The pick of the first half burst was the last try by Zhanseitov, who was on hand to complete a lovely break by second row Grigoriy Ivanchenko who peeled from the back of a lineout 40 metres out. A powerful burst down the middle caught the defence napping before an inside pass sent Zhanseitov over the line untouched.
Akymbekov grabbed his second try soon after the break to ensure Kazakhstan would get the bonus point that keeps them in the title hunt. That would be the last try as Lifontov then took over, knocking over every opportunity as the top seeds eased off, intent on keeping their energy levels.
Chinese Taipei scored two consolation tries through Chung Po-yan and Ho Ming-hsien despite losing wing Chen Chifi-kang to a red card. Down to 14 men, the pressure was eased and Kazakhstan were able to make changes to give their top players a rest.
“Our idea from the outset was to secure a bonus point by scoring four tries and I’m happy we did it with the minimum fuss,” said Mashurov, who was not so pleased to see his influential second row Anton Makarenko sent off for a tip tackle.
“It will be a huge loss. He is a key player and a ball-winning forward,” said Mashurov. “But we are now in a position to win this tournament. Our fate is in our hands.”
While Sri Lanka and Kazakhstan battle for the title, Chinese Taipei and Thailand will battle it out with the loser relegated to Division II next year.