HSBC ASIAN FIVE NATIONS OPENER A SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
[Colombo, 21 April 2011]: Survival will be the name of the game for both the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Sri Lanka as the 2011 HSBC Asian Five Nations Top Five competition gets underway in Colombo on Saturday. In the weekend’s other match Kazakhstan and Hong Kong will battle it out for a win and the crucial points that accompany that on the series table in Almaty.
Both Sri Lanka and UAE know that their best chance of remaining in the elite competition next year will be to win this game, for the rest of the opposition - defending champions Japan, runners-up last year Kazakhstan and third-place Hong Kong - might be a bridge too far to travel.
Sri Lanka is making its Top 5 debut after winning the HSBC Asian Five Nations Division I in 2010, while the United Arab Emirates Rugby Association (UAERA) are replacing the former regional representative, the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union in the Top 5 in 2011.
Wearing a new strip, the UAE enter a new era with high hopes of remaining in the Top Five competition next season.
“It is a new beginning for us and a new history. For the first time, our players will be representing a country and I’m very confident we will do well,” said Qais Abdulla Aldhalai, deputy general secretary of the UAE Rugby Association (UAERA).
Qais added: “We were given two options by the Asian Rugby Football Union when we formed the UAERA. They said we could either continue in the Top Five competition and take the place of the Arabian Gulf, or that we could start from bottom in Division Five. We obviously choose to stay in the big league. Our goal is now to remain there.”
“We must return with something from Sri Lanka,” said Ian Bremner, chief executive of UAERA. “If we don’t win our first game, we will be running up a slope for the remaining matches. Lose and we will have our backs a little bit to the wall,” Bremner added.
“We are playing away to Hong Kong and while we have home advantage against Kazakhstan, we lost to them last year,” Bremner said. “Our best chance of staying in the Top Five next season will be to beat the new boys in the big league Sri Lanka.”
Keeping their Top 5 spot is the minimum requirement coach Bruce Birtwistle has set his team, although only five players have been retained from last year’s Arabian Gulf XV which finished fourth in the competition with wins over Hong Kong and South Korea.
Easier said than done with coach Birtwistle grappling with a reduced pool of players as well as the loss of key individuals like scrumhalf Jonny MacDonald who has gone on to represent Scotland in sevens.
“We used to be able to draw players from Bahrain, Oman and Qatar in the past, but no more,” said New Zealander Birtwistle, who had been in charge of the Arabian Gulf at the last two campaigns in the HSBC Asian Five Nations.
“We have also lost players who have left the region like Jonny MacDonald who has joined Scotland and played at the Hong Kong Sevens and Adelaide Sevens. His loss is huge,” Birtwistle said.
The IRB decreed that a player, who had turned out for the Arabian Gulf, could if he wished represent his home country without having to go through the required stand-down period of three years. MacDonald, a livewire halfback, jumped at the chance and the Scotland sevens set-up grabbed him.
UAE Skipper Mike Cox-Hill, a lionhearted lock forward, and his men have had the importance of staying in the Top Five drummed into them.
“It is vital to stay in the Top Five for the sake of continuity and sustainability. We have to show our fans that the UAERA can take over from the Arabian Gulf and be a team they can support,” said Bremner.
The UAERA played its first away game in April to Morocco in Casablanca. They returned home wishing they could play it again having lost 13-0.
“A few poor refereeing decisions went against us and it created some frustrations for the players. We also had five players who were playing international rugby for the first time,” said Birtwistle.
This inexperience will worry him, especially a greenish back division that could struggle against Sri Lanka. The return of loose forwards Remiere Els and Andrew Miller will strengthen the pack and it is here that the game will be won or lost for UAE.
“We have a reasonable forward pack but the backs are inexperienced,” said Birtwistle. “But if we play to our potential we will be a difficult team to handle.”
“The players are carrying the flag of UAE on their chest for the first time. I’m confident they will do us proud,” Qais said.
Sri Lanka, promoted after winning division one last season, also admit that their best chance of registering a victory will be in their opening match.
New Zealand-based coach Ellis Meachen said: “We realise the importance of this game. Our aim this year is to make certain we are not relegated back into Division One next season.”
Meachen who was brought into the hot seat three months ago has tried his best to concentrate the mind of the players on the task at hand but says his biggest problem is the lack of match-practice for the team with rugby being off-season in Sri Lanka right now. Kandy flanker Sean Wijesinghe will lead Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s goal will be made slightly easier by raising the curtain on the tournament at home in Colombo, and by the fact that they will host three HSBC Asian Five Nations matches this year with the moving of the final Japan v Sri Lanka match from Tokyo to the Ceylonese Rugby & Football Club in Colombo.
While the stakes are high in Sri Lanka, Kazakhstan will face an equally tough challenge from Hong Kong who travel to Almaty on Saturday.
“Hong Kong is a very competitive team,” said Kazakhstan captain Timur Mashurov. “They have a very good set-up and are well drilled.”
The head-to-head between the two sides is 2-1 in Hong Kong’s favour. The significant aspect of this is that the home team has always emerged winners, which (considering the partisan atmosphere and tough travel conditions of playing in Almaty) will give heart to Mashurov and his men.
“We need to keep them out of the game from the opening whistle and rely on playing on our home ground to give us the edge to even the record,” Mashurov added.
Hong Kong has included seven players turning out for the first time in the HSBC Asian Five Nations for the match against Kazakhstan, including new captain and outside centre Tom McColl. The recent IRB-eligibility of No. 8 Pale Tauti plus hooker Brent Taylor and lock-forward Oliver Jones will strengthen the pack ahead of what is always a tight forwards battle.
Hong Kong also boats a new midfield combination in McColl and Lee Jones while scrumhalf Peter McKee and fullback Ross Armour are also appearing for the first time in this competition.
“We have got seven guys who will be playing for the first time in the A5N. The good thing is that they are not making their debut, having been part of the team which toured Europe last December, so they know each other well,’ said Hong Kong head coach Dai Rees.
Opening match action kicks off at 16.00 local time in both Colombo and Almaty. The Sri Lanka versus UAE tie will be shown LIVE on ESPN Star Sports throughout the region.
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