Two key battles on final weekend of Top 5
The Asia 1 qualifier for Rugby World Cup 2015 will not be known until next year, but there is plenty at stake in the final round of the HSBC Asian 5 Nations Top 5 on Saturday with two sides battling for second spot and two to avoid relegation to Division I.
Japan have already claimed a sixth successive crown, but Korea and Hong Kong will meet in Ansan to fight over second place – a spot that would earn them a place in the Repechage next year – with the Philippines and United Arab Emirates desperate to remain in the Top 5.
“We want to try and finish second and boost our confidence for next season when a similar finish in this tournament will win us the Repechage spot in the fight for a World Cup berth,” admitted Hong Kong captain Tom McColl.
“Our goal has always been to finish second to Japan and we know how important it will be to the morale of this team, especially as we have shown that we now have some depth and can still be competitive despite missing a number of key players.”
Hong Kong played the whole campaign without their Sevens players, who had been tasked with gaining core team status for the HSBC Sevens World Series for 2013/14. They failed in that bid after losing in qualifier quarter-finals in London last weekend.
Head coach Leigh Jones has made three changes to the side that beat the Philippines 59-20 in Manila a fortnight ago with hooker Alex Harris and prop Steve Nolan starting, along with fly half Niall Rowark who replaces Mike Glancy.
“We will have to make sure that we are in the game at the end of the first 20 minutes and are in touch at the break. If we can do that, I’m confident we can push Korea, but it will be tough playing in their own backyard,” said Jones.
Huge learning curve
Hong Kong scored more than 50 points in beating both UAE and the Philippines, but know that Korea will be a different ball game. Last year, Korea came out on top after scoring a late try at the Hong Kong Football Club.
“We have done enough to remain in the frame for Rugby World Cup qualification which was the ultimate goal. I am pleased that we have improved in each match we have played this year,” said Korea coach Park Kihaeng.
“Now we want to finish in second as it will be a strong way to end this year’s campaign with a good win at home. That will be a good starting point for next year’s Rugby World Cup qualifier but we are not taking Hong Kong lightly. They have an impressive defence and a strong attack. It should be a very tight game.”
While both teams are assured of their spot in the Top 5 next year, the loser in Manila will see their dream of RWC 2015 qualification ended with relegation to Division I. Sri Lanka will replace them after winning that title in 2013.
The Philippines have had a tough introduction to the Top 5, but coach Jarred Hodges is enthusiastic about their chances of beating UAE and continuing their learning curve among Asia’s elite nations.
“It's been fantastic. We have learnt a lot about ourselves and identified areas we need to work on if we are to be a major player in the next two to three years,” explained Hodges.
“We have improved week on week but it is now time to string two 40-minute halves together. We know that if we can compete for 80 minutes we're going to win more games than we lose. The set piece remains an area that we need to work on and the guys are working hard to improve their skill sets.”
Hodges knows that the UAE forwards are strong and will be intent on exploiting any perceived weakness in their opposition up front.
“The UAE team is very experienced and has been in the top flight for a number of years. They have played the relegation match before and have always got the result, so that’s going to help them. They’re big and physical, so we’re going to need to be up for the contest.
“But I’m confident that this week at home, people are going to see a different side. We have made a few personnel changes that will strengthen us; guys who have been injured and are now fit to give it a go. I think we will surprise people.”
His UAE counterpart Duncan Hall was equally sanguine about his side’s prospects: “We have made good progress on the field, but unfortunately it doesn't reflect in the scorelines. The competition gets harder every year and you need to lift your own standards to keep up. But it is always an honour to be in the top division and we very much enjoy punching above our weight and I am sure the Philippines do as well.”
Both sides are yet to win in 2013 and will be leaving no stone unturned in their bid to avoid defeat at the Rizal Stadium and remain on the road to Rugby World Cup 2015.
“The relegation match is obviously important in terms of what happens next year, but is it the be-all and end-all? No it’s not. Philippine rugby has got a stronghold and is growing all the time in the country. We’ll continue beyond next year whatever the result may be. But we would like to make sure that we continue in the top flight - that is for sure,” said Hodges.
Hall added: “I have been asked recently, would we be better playing in the division below and have more even matches? On the one hand, the answer is yes. It is very difficult to ask players to go into a competition where you are possibly going to lose three games and you have a chance of winning one. But that is the way it is and we look forward every year to that challenge.
“We all want to play in the top division and our aim is to stay there, but it is very difficult as we are working off a small pool of qualified players. But being up in the Top 5, and staying there, gives us credibility as a union and encourages players who qualify to give up their time and be a part of a great concept and a great competition.”