(Other) Friday 13 April 2012
Philippines captain Michael Letts finds a way through the Korean defence in their 2011 HSBC Asian 5 Nations Division I encounter in Ansan.
The qualifying process for RWC 2015 got underway in the Caribbean and Central America recently, to great success. Now, as if to illustrate the truly global nature of the game, the tournament’s focus switches to the other side of the planet, as the Asian section of qualifying kicks off in the Philippines this weekend.
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There is little doubt that Asian rugby is on the up and becoming increasingly competitive – and that is reflected in the international set-up in that part of the world. The Asian Five Nations – the annual tournament contested by the international sides in the region – doubles as the qualifying competition for the Rugby World Cup and is split into six divisions: the elite Top 5, followed by Divisions I, II, III, IV and V.
Each year there is relegation and promotion between the divisions. That means that, with the winners of the 2014 Top 5 qualifying automatically for the following year’s Rugby World Cup, time is running out for the teams in some of the lower divisions to fight their way in to that elite and give themselves a shot at qualifying for England in 2015.
Perhaps that explains why there is so much anticipation regarding the Division I competition which is taking place next week between Sri Lanka, Singapore, Philippines and Chinese Taipei. As the division directly below the elite Top 5 (featuring the likes of traditional powerhouses Japan), they are the teams most desperate to earn promotion, which is why they are putting so much into the next week of rugby. They will certainly need to do so – last year’s Division I competition was simply two semi-finals and a final, meaning just two wins saw South Korea promoted. This year the tournament is being played as a round-robin, meaning each side will play three games in just seven days, all at the Rizal Memorial Stadium in Manila.
Just as well for Sri Lanka, then, that they recently made the significant investment of bringing in former England hooker Phil Greening as coach on a two-year contract. As the side narrowly relegated from the Top 5 last year, and the Asian nation with the oldest rugby tradition (club rugby was being played in Sri Lanka in 1879), they are rightly favourites for the Division I title, and are leaving nothing to chance. But with a new coach and new ideas to implement, the other three sides will be hoping to take advantage of any bedding-in period.
As hosts, the Philippines are particularly keen to put on a good show. Many consider them to be the rising force in Asian rugby – they only played their first test match in 2006, and have since won Division IV, Division III and Division II to find themselves at this level. The team picked for the tournament includes three sets of brothers, and although they may struggle to win the competition they will hope that familial bond and the boost of home advantage will spur them on.
Singapore have in many ways gone in the opposite direction to the Philippines in recent years, dropping down from the Top 5 in 2009. They will be keen to rejoin the elite, and came close to doing so last year, losing out to South Korea in the final. However, with a potentially tricky opening tie against the hosts and the intensive round-robin format, they will do well to repeat last year’s performance.
Chinese Taipei are the newcomers to the division, reclaiming the spot they lost in 2010 by defeating Thailand in last year’s Division II final. Taking on Sri Lanka first will be a severe test, but with a new generation of players and a proud rugby tradition they will be no walkover.
Whatever happens over the course of next week’s competition, one thing is for sure: there will be a lot of national pride at stake as these four nations attempt to qualify for RWC 2015.
Watch highlights from the first RWC 2015 qualifier between Mexico and Jamaica, on Total Rugby TV
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