While Lithuania were the biggest climbers in the World Rugby Rankings over the last seven days – moving up six places to 39th – their interest in the Rugby World Cup 2019 qualification process is now over despite a 52-14 bonus-point win away to Sweden.
Instead, it is the Czech Republic who go through to the next phase of regional qualification in Europe as champions of Conference 1 North, with Lithuania having to settle for second place.
The Czechs only needed a point from their remaining fixture away to Luxembourg to be guaranteed top spot and they achieved that with ease in front of 1,200 spectators at Luxembourg’s Stade Josy Barthel.
Two tries inside the first quarter from number eight Marek Loutocky set them on their way before winger Tomas Forst added a third score on the stroke of half-time as the visitors took a 19-3 lead.
While the Czechs were unable to prise open Luxembourg’s defence from open play in the second half, referee Craig Maxwell-Keys awarded them two penalty tries, which were both converted, for a final score of 33-3.
By finishing top of Conference 1 North, the Czech Republic have set up a clash with Conference 1 South champions Malta to decide which team will be promoted to the Rugby Europe Trophy and continue their RWC 2019 qualification journey.
The Czechs will go into the tie as favourites given they are ranked 10 places higher than the Maltese in 33rd position.
Malta suffered a one-place fall to 43rd because of Lithuania’s rise which came about after they picked up 1.43 rating points for victory in Enköping.
Number eight Zygimantas Radzius and outside centre Justinas Vasiliauskas both bagged a brace of tries apiece for Lithuania, while both of Sweden’s tries were scored by full-back Fredrik Enstad. Sweden slip three places to 61st as a result of the defeat.
SACASE STARS FOR HUNGARY
As expected, Hungary will meet Conference 2 South champions Bosnia and Herzegovina in the other play-off after securing the Conference 2 North title with a 37-5 win away to Finland.
Fly-half Martin Sacase converted his own try and three others as well as slotting three penalties as Hungary overcame a slow start to come away with maximum points.
Hungary went into the game needing only two points to be certain of the silverware but they found Finland tough to break down in the first half and only led by a point thanks to two Sacase penalties.
Sacase kicked a third five minutes into the second period but nearly an hour had passed before Hungary finally crossed the whitewash through Gregoire Collet.
With their resistance finally broken, Finland then shipped three more tries in quick succession, Sacase dotting down four minutes later before Collet got his second and winger Komel Kiss added a fourth on the stroke of full-time.
Having picked up 0.58 of a point for the win, Hungary move above Slovenia and into 75th place in the rankings.
Neither of the remaining two games in the Rugby Europe Conference system affected the rankings as they involved teams – Cyprus and Estonia - that do not hold full membership of World Rugby.
Luka Kovacic converted his own try with two minutes to go as Croatia came back from a 20-3 half-time deficit away to Cyprus to win 29-27.
Meanwhile, Conference 2 North basement side Estonia gave Norway a run for their money before succumbing to a 43-16 defeat at the Bislett Stadium in Oslo.
The Norwegians only led 17-13 at the break but two tries from right winger Tobias Nygaard within eight minutes of the restart effectively put the result beyond doubt.
HONG KONG RUN JAPAN CLOSE
RWC 2019 hosts Japan made it three wins from three in the Asia Rugby Championship with a 29-17 victory over Hong Kong in Tokyo, but they were pushed all the way by their tenacious opponents.
Hong Kong led the match at the midway point of both halves but had to settle for the consolation of knowing that they’d ran Japan closer than any other team had managed at this level in the best part of a decade.
Japan got off to a flying start when a grubber kick from test debutant Kanta Shikao set up the opening try for Shuhei Matsuhashi with only two minutes gone.
However, they were set back on their heels when Samuela Anise was sent to the sin-bin in the 16th minute, conceding 10 points while they were short-handed following Jamie Hood’s penalty and Yiu Kam Shing’s converted try.
Akihito Yamada grabbed the first of his two tries to put Japan back in front, but the advantage was short-lived as Hong Kong hit back with a score from Tyler Spitz putting them 17-12 up with a quarter of the match to go.
Brave Blossoms coach Jamie Joseph used his bench to good effect to avert the danger of a shock defeat ahead of Wednesday’s RWC 2019 pool draw in Kyoto, with Yamada bagging his second before being followed over the line by fellow RWC 2015 veterans Shota Horie and captain Harumichi Tatekawa.
“Hats off to Hong Kong, they played very well. They put us under a lot of pressure and it took us a while to react,” said Joseph.
Japan will travel to Hong Kong next week with something to prove after Saturday’s close-run affair. A win at Hong Kong Football Club will be enough to secure their eighth straight Asian title. Japan have 15 points after three matches, while Korea have a single bonus point and Hong Kong are yet to get on the board.
The pool draw for Rugby World Cup 2019 takes place in Kyoto, Japan, on 10 May, 2017. Join the Front Row HERE to be the first to receive all the latest news and ticketing updates for Japan 2019 and follow @RugbyWorldCup.