The Asian Rugby Football Union (ARFU) is set to kick off its premier men’s and women’s XVs competitions under a new name and format, the Asia Rugby Championship (ARC) and Asia Women’s Rugby Championship (AWRC).
In 2015, Asia’s elite XVs competitions will focus on the top three teams, reduced from five in last year’s men’s competition – the former Asian 5 Nations Top 5, and four in the women’s competition.
Japan, who won all seven Asian 5 Nations titles, 2014 runners-up Hong Kong and third-placed Korea will contest a full home-and-away series across seven weeks, starting on Saturday when Korea host Japan at the Namdong Asiad Rugby Groundin Incheon.
The Philippines and Sri Lanka, the fourth and fifth-placed finishers from last year’s Top 5 competition, are routed into Division I in 2015.
“We have re-structured our elite men’s and women’s competition to help create opportunities for the top teams to play more matches against opposition in World Rugby’s high-performance bands," said ARFU President Trevor Gregory,
Japan are the only Asian team in World Rugby’s high-performance tier two band. Hong Kong and Korea are in the next tier down – the performance band, while the rest of Asia is in the development band.
“Our aim is to try and get more Asian countries into the performance, and ultimately high performance, bands. Countries in the performance band need to play at least 10 test matches a year and the new home-and-away Asia Rugby Championship is a first step towards that goal,” said Gregory.
While there is no mandatory promotion match in the 2015 men’s competition the winner of Division I can choose to challenge the bottom-placed team at the conclusion of the ARC.
If held, that match would take place in the home nation of the third-placed finisher in the ARC on 6 June. Starting in 2016, promotion and relegation will again be a regular feature, with a mandatory challenge match taking place each year to determine the format for the following season’s competition.
Korea eye upset
Korea will have one of its best chances in recent years to upset the region’s rugby formbook when they take on a depleted Brave Blossoms side this Saturday.
Japan won 28 consecutive matches when the competition was run on a five-team format but enter the inaugural Asia Rugby Championship with close on a third of their first-choice squad unavailable. Leading the absentees are Michael Leitch and Fumiaki Tanaka, who have been in outstanding form for the Chiefs and Highlanders in Super Rugby.
Four other players – Keita Inagaki, Akihito Yamada, Kotaro Matsushima and Hendrik Tui – are also in Australia with Super Rugby sides, while Shota Horie, Shinya Makebe, Kosei Ono and Lelei Mafi are all rehabbing. Kensuke Hatakeyama will captain the side in the absence of Leitch.
“No one outside the original training squad of 41 has played well enough to warrant selection, and as they have no more games to play to show their ability they will be relying on injury to get into the squad,” said Jones when he announced the 31 players that would take on Korea and Hong Kong.
“Selection was made on historical form, current form and potential form,” Jones said, explaining why Craig Wing and Justin Ives were picked despite missing parts of last season.
“I don't pick players who are good in the domestic leagues. I pick players who can play international rugby or have the potential to play international rugby. Good domestic players don't win international games and that's the same everywhere in the world.
“I watched the Japan Cup final the other day and only five players put their hand up for selection. One is ineligible to play for Japan and I've picked the other four,” added Jones.
Three uncapped players were named in the original squad – which shows a 19-12 forwards-backs split – in second-row Kazuhiko Usami, prop Ryu Sioapelatu Holani (brother of number eight Ryu Koliniasi Holani) and flanker Tsuyoshi Murata, with sevens player Matsui also yet to play for the national team.
"We obviously want to win every game but in the back of our minds we are preparing for the Rugby World Cup."
The team has been in camp in Miyazaki, where they will spend close on 120 days in the build-up to Rugby World Cup 2015 –where Japan will face South Africa, Samoa, Scotland and USA in Pool B –and Jones promised the players before they left that they would be working hard.
Jones said that while he would like to win every game in the build-up to the showpiece tournament, performing well in England was his top priority.
“We obviously want to win every game but at the back of our minds we are preparing for the Rugby World Cup,” Jones said.
Hong Kong meanwhile is hoping its appearance in a re-structured 2015 Asian Rugby Championship will help them close the gap on regional powerhouse Japan, but their primary target will once again be Korea in a fast-developing rivalry in recent seasons as the two unions jostle for spots in Asia’s rugby pecking order.
Hong Kong will open their campaign at home with a crucial tie versus Korea at the Hong Kong Football Club on 25 April. The competition will end with Japan clashing with Hong Kong at Aberdeen Stadium on 23 May.
“Our hope is that all of these games will be close,” said Gregory. “While it is crucial that Hong Kong and Korea close the gap on Japan, it is also important that Japan raises its own standards and close the gap on the rest of the world before 2019 when they host the World Cup. Hopefully more intense competition in the Asia region will help them in this objective as well."
With Japan winning an automatic berth at Rugby World Cup 2019 as hosts, Asian officials are hopeful that a second Asian team will be able to force its way into the showpiece and believe the re-structured Asian Rugby Championship will help lift standards. In the last two Rugby World Cup qualifying processes, Hong Kong (2015) and Kazakhstan (2011) stumbled in the first-round repechage to Uruguay.
“The only way the other Asian teams are going to lift their standards is to play more games against top sides. The tri-nations format will give Hong Kong and Korea that chance and I believe the first division can also close the gap with countries like Sri Lanka and Kazakhstan having the ability to improve,” Gregory said.
Phoenix soar to new heights
The top-tier competition will be supported by a four-nation Division I tournament and five other competitive divisions, involving 21 additional ARFU member unions.
Three regional tournaments have been instituted at Division III level: East, Central and West. Division III West has already kicked off with a three-team competition between Lebanon (on their debut hosting of an elite ARFU men’s XVs competition), Iran and Jordan.
Lebanon, nicknamed 'The Phoenix', opened the competition with a 71-3 win over Jordan in game one and will play Iran in the first official test match between the two nations on 18 April. Iran also overcame Jordan, 49-3 on Thursday.
The Division I competition will be held at the mid-point of the ARC with matches on 6 and 9 May in Manila. Last year’s Top 5 sides Philippines and Sri Lanka will face Singapore and Kazakhstan in a highly competitive grouping in the Philippines that for the first time ever features four former Top 5 sides.
The tournament will be the first event held at the all-new 25,000-seat Philippines Arena outside Manila. Division II will take place the following week in Kuala Lumpur with Malaysia, Thailand, UAE and Chinese Taipei playing a full round-robin competition.
Division III Central features India, Pakistan and Uzbekistan in Tashkent in May, while the East regional competition will feature Indonesia, China and Guam in Jakarta in June.
Kazakhstan defend women's crown
Subsequent matches (Japan v Kazakhstan and Hong Kong v Japan) will be played as curtain-raisers for the men’s Asia Rugby Championship games in Fukuoka on 9 May and in Hong Kong on 23 May.
The Asia Women’s Rugby Championship will feature the region’s top three teams in 2015 with a round robin competition between defending champions Kazakhstan, runners-up Hong Kong and third-ranked Japan. Hong Kong will travel to Kazakhstan to open the competition in Almaty on 25 April.
The AWRC will be supported by a four-team Division I competition to be held later in the year as ARFU continues to provide opportunities for its member unions to enhance their competitiveness ahead of qualification for Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017.
Asia Rugby Men's Championship 2015
18 April: Korea v Japan - Namdong Asiad Rugby Stadium
25 April: Kong Kong v Korea - Hong Kong Football Club
2 May: Japan v Hong Kong - Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo
9 May: Japan v Korea - Level 5 Stadium, Fukuoka
16 May: Korea v Hong Kong - Namdong Rugby Stadium
23 May: Hong Kong v Japan - Aberdeen Stadium, Hong Kong
Asia Rugby Women's Championship 2015
25 April: Kazkhstan v Hong Kong - Kazakhstan Stadium, Almaty
9 May: Japan v Kazakhstan - Level 5 Stadium, Fukuoka, Japan
23 May: Hong Kong v Japan - Aberdeen Stadium, Hong Kong