Under the gaze of the Webb Ellis Cup, rugby’s ultimate prize, the United Arab Emirates and Thailand kept their dream of qualification for Rugby World Cup 2019 alive with victories on the opening day of the Asia Rugby Championship Division 2 tournament in Tashkent on Wednesday.
Despite a lively crowd cheering them on at Dustlik Stadium on the outskirts of the Uzbek capital, the home team were overpowered by a strong and well-drilled UAE outfit. Motivated by the presence of the cup, seven tries in the first half blew Uzbekistan away and really ended the game as a contest by half-time. The hosts put up a better fight in the second spell, limiting the Emiratis to two further scores and crossing the line twice themselves to restore some home-town pride.
But a final score of 65-13, including a hat-trick of tries from centre Charles Sargent, means the UAE will be confident as they head into Saturday’s promotion decider.
“We’re delighted with that performance, especially in the first half,” said UAE captain Niall Statham. “We really used the presence of the Webb Ellis Cup as motivation for us today. This is our Rugby World Cup and it was great to have the cup. It really meant that we flew out of the traps in the first half and dominated the game.”
In this tournament last year, the UAE beat Thailand 55-23 but Statham is not taking that as a guide for how the final will go here.
“We know we will have to play well on Saturday to beat Thailand. They have beaten us in sevens and even though we beat them last year, they have some new players who did well against Guam today. We know them well and they know us so there won’t be many secrets but it should be a good game,” said the Dubai Dragons RFC flanker.
In the final they will face a Thailand side that had to work very hard before defeating the higher-ranked Guam.
Nine points down after 26 minutes, Guam fought back and took the lead 10 minutes after the interval thanks to a try, conversion and three penalties from burly scrum-half Ratu Uluiviti. But Thailand kept their heads and hit back with a penalty from full-back Warongkorn Khamkoet and then a converted try from loose-head prop Chinnoiwont Hirunchai. The icing on the cake came late in the game courtesy of a sweetly struck drop goal from Khamkoet to put daylight between the teams and secure a 25-16 win.
This tournament has kick-started the qualification process in Asia. With Japan having qualified automatically by virtue of finishing third in their RWC 2015 pool, the top team in Asia will now go forward into the global repechage for a place at rugby’s flagship event.
While the opening ceremony is still more than three years away, Rugby World Cup 2019 has now already begun with an inclusive and exciting qualification process underway. In total, the competition now features more than 90 nations. The qualifying stages comprise around 200 matches, featuring in excess of 3,000 players across six continents, including the developing rugby markets of Brazil, Russia, India and China as well as USA and Mexico.
With 12 teams having secured their place at Japan 2019 courtesy of finishing in the top three of their respective pools in 2015, the remaining eight places will be determined by a process of regional and cross-regional qualifiers and, for the first time, a stand-alone round-robin repechage tournament to determine the final qualifier in 2018.
Asia is a region of great growth for the game at present with World Rugby’s Get Into Rugby mass-participation programme taking off across the continent. And with Japan’s stellar performances in RWC 2015 still fresh in the memory, that continues to provide inspiration to other Asian unions who have top-level ambitions of their own.