Focus turns to RWC 2015 for Asia's Top 5
This season’s HSBC Asian 5 Nations Top 5 kicks off this weekend with defending champions Japan hosting debutants Philippines in what is expected to be a baptism of fire for the Volcanoes.
The Top 5 is also doubling as the final stage of this year’s Asian qualifiers for Rugby World Cup 2015 with the relegated team after the five-week competition seeing their RWC chances come to an end. In 2014 the winner of the Top 5 will directly qualify for the following year’s tournament in England and join South Africa, Samoa, Scotland and the Americas 2 qualifier in Pool B.
Japan will welcome last year’s Division I champions Philippines to Level 5 Stadium in Fukuoka in what will be as tough an introduction to life at the top of Asian Rugby as the men from Manila could expect. In the other game of the weekend, the UAE travel to Hong Kong Football Club to take on a team to whom they lost 51-6 last season.
But Hong Kong head coach Leigh Jones is not taking the UAE boys lightly, especially given the decision not field any of HK’s top Sevens representatives in this year’s Top 5 in a bid to keep them fresh for the London Sevens and Rugby World Cup Sevens 2013 in Moscow from June 28-30.
“That win last season could be a double edged sword for us,” said Jones. “I fully expect it to be a very different and a very improved team from the one we faced in Dubai at the end of the year.”
Hong Kong will also offer a different look in this year’s Top 5 opener with familiar faces like Rowan Varty and Salom Yiu Kam-shing sitting in the stands for the first time in recent memory.
Coach Jones commented on the challenge of fielding a squad without calling upon the Hong Kong Sevens squad members, saying: “It is the way the game in Hong Kong is moving. The Sevens team’s schedule is now more challenging than ever, which is a testament to the great work that has gone into developing that programme in Asia.
“That means the opportunity presents itself for other quality players in Hong Kong to display their talents which is hugely exciting for us as a team and a Union. If all goes according to plan we won’t need to call upon the Sevens guys but of course it would be naive to think their presence will not be missed to some degree.”
Another Jones leading a team in the A5N this year is of course Japan coach Eddie. Having won 20 straight games in this competition since 2008 - all with a bonus point – the Brave Blossoms will naturally start as clear favourites this time around. Since the inception of the Rugby World Cup in 1987, Japan has been the only Asian side to take part, a marker that coach Eddie Jones is keen to continue in 2015.
The Japan national team has been on a consistent upward trajectory in recent years, which bodes well as the Asian champions prepare to host Rugby World Cup 2019.
And if the Volcanoes were expecting an easier time of it from Japan, they should think again. “This is our strongest team at the moment based on what we have seen in camp,” said Jones.
New cap Masataka Mikami joins forces with Hiroki Yuhara and Hiroshi Yamashita in a relatively inexperienced front row. “Hisateru Hirashima and Takeshi Kizu are both not quite 100 per cent but they should be in the frame for next week,” Jones explained.
But the front row will have plenty of experience behind them in the form of Hitoshi Ono, who will be winning his 64th cap. The 34-year-old veteran lines up in the second row alongside Shinya Makabe. Michael Broadhurst, Takashi Kikutani and Ryu Koliniasi Holani form a powerful and athletic back row, which should pose a challenge for their counterparts.
“The Philippines are different from other Asian teams in that a lot of them have got a background in Australian Rugby and rugby league,” Jones said. “They are good ball carriers and tacklers and a lot of them have Top League [Japan’s professional competition] experience … We want to build on what we have done in camp. It's the first game of the season so we won't be 100 per cent but I want a good solid game."
HSBC Asian 5 Nations 2013 Fixtures
20 April - Japan v Philippines, Fukuoka; Hong Kong v UAE, Hong Kong
26 April - UAE v Korea, Al Ain
27 April - Hong Kong v Japan, Hong Kong
4 May - Japan v Korea, Tokyo; Philippines v Hong Kong, Manila
10 May - UAE v Japan, Dubai
11 May - Korea v Philippines, Ansan
18 May - Korea v Hong Kong, Ansan; Philippines v UAE, Manila