Japan may have retained their HSBC Asian Five Nations crown with four emphatic bonus point victories just as they had done in the inaugural competition last year, but behind them the race for second place was hotly contested by Korea, Hong Kong and Kazakhstan.
Korea had claimed that mantle in 2008 and were favourites to be 'best of the rest' once more, particularly with Hong Kong finding their feet under new national coach Dai Rees. However, both nations had to travel to Almaty to face Kazakhstan, one of the most improving nations in Asia, in their own backyard.
The Koreans were the first to discover that playing in Kazakhstan's largest city was no easy task in the second round of the competition spanning five consecutive weekends in April and May - even though their visit to the Central Stadium came on the back of the Kazakhs suffering a heavy 87-10 loss to Japan in Osaka seven days earlier.
Kazakhstan had finished fourth last year - needing a win on the final weekend over Arabian Gulf to avoid relegation - with coach Valeriy Popov admitting at the time that their first taste of the Top 5 had been a learning experience and one to motivate them to make the next step up. The visit of Korea provided them with the perfect opportunity to show to the world of rugby that they were a nation on the rise in Asia.
Inspired by their veteran stars, flanker Anton Rudoy and full back Maxim Lifontov, Kazakhstan led 13-3 at half-time in an entertaining encounter. Two tries in quick succession after the break not only saw Rudoy complete his hat-trick, but took the hosts out to 27-10 with 30 minutes remaining.
Kazakhstan target repeat in 2010
Korea, though, weren't finished and fought back to level the match following tries from Jeong Dae Ik and Han Kun Kyu, full back Kim Huen Hyun converting both and kicking a penalty. However, there was to be no fairytale comeback with Lifontov - last year's leading point-scorer - slotting the winning penalty to the delight of the 2,600 crowd.
Kazakhstan were nearly brought back down to earth with a bang a week later when they only scraped past Singapore 22-19 in humid conditions, but after sitting out round four they returned home and braved the torrential rain that fell for long periods to beat Hong Kong 25-6 and clinch the runners-up spot.
"Today's win is going to be a great boost for rugby in Kazakhstan," captain and try scorer Timur Mashurov said afterwards. "We are really happy to win in front of our home crowd today, but we know we have to do it all again next year if we want to go to the Rugby World Cup in 2011."
Next year's champions will qualify for Rugby World Cup 2011 with the runners-up entering the cross-continental play-off. One side that will not be part of that process is Singapore, having finished bottom with a solitary bonus point on their debut in the Top 5 as last year's Division I winners.
Singapore, though, like Kazakhstan and Arabian Gulf before them, have learned from their experiences and players now realise the difference between local rugby and representing their country against Asia's elite. Beaten by Korea 65-0 and Hong Kong 64-6, Singapore ended the campaign with a 45-15 defeat by Japan at Yio Chu Kang Stadium.
While they were the only side to keep Japan below 50 points, and scored the most points against them, Singapore did face a starting XV containing only four players from the previous week's 80-9 defeat of Korea. For coach Danny Tauroa, though, the performance was "all about character and restoring the pride in wearing the Singapore jersey".
Malaysia will play in Division I of the Asian Five Nations in 2010 and will hope their "lucky charm" Rory Underwood will attend their matches again
There were other positives to emerge from the Top 5 with Hong Kong unearthing a new talent in Adam Raby, the wing helping himself to seven tries in his first two internationals, three as his side fought back from 31-3 down at half-time to narrowly lose 36-34 to Korea in round three and then four against Singapore.
While Rees was taking his first steps as Hong Kong coach, his Japanese counterpart John Kirwan has had one eye on RWC 2011 for a while. The former All Black admitted before the Top 5 kicked off that "last year was a transition for us, where we kept some of the older players to help the younger guys, but this year we've only selected players who will still be playing at the 2011 Rugby World Cup."
This meant only one player in his 30s got the nod - Hirotoki Onozawa, who reached a personal milestone by marking his 50th Test for Japan against Korea with a four-try haul to surpass Kirwan's own tally of 35 Test tries, his coach saying afterwards he would "probably buy him a bottle of champagne and share it with him".
Dream lives on for Arabian Gulf
Away from the Top 5, Arabian Gulf ensured their RWC 2011 dream lives on by winning Division I. Led by Taif Al Delamie, the first ever Arabian Gulf national to captain the side, they ran out 44-24 winners over Chinese Taipei in the final played at The Sevens in Dubai, while Sri Lanka beat last year's Division II winners Thailand 51-17 to finish third.
Former England wing Rory Underwood joked he must be Malaysia's "lucky charm" after watching the Division II hosts secure promotion by beating an under strength China 43-15 in Kuala Lumpur in June. China had only brought 19 players and, having led by a point at half-time, inevitably tired to allow Malaysia to run riot.
"It was great to be back in a rugby environment in Asia," admitted Underwood. "I am really delighted to see that the Game continues to grow in Asia, particularly through the influence of the HSBC Asian Five Nations … I am excited to see some of the native talent in Asia."
Pakistan will play in Division III in 2010 after losing 44-3 to India in the third place play-off - a big improvement on last year's 92-0 defeat, filling the void left by the Philippines' promotion following a 25-0 win over Guam in Manila in early July. This new tier involved the three Regional tournament winners in 2008 - Philippines, Iran and Indonesia - along with Guam, but while the winner would be promoted, there would be no relegation in the first year.
In the bottom tier of the Asian Five Nations pyramid, the two Regional tournaments brought success for hosts Laos and Uzbekistan. Laos got the 2009 competition underway in March, but needed a late 70-metre breakaway try from Packham Sensourivong to beat Cambodia 8-3 and claim the honours. Uzbekistan proved too strong for Kyrgyzstan - a side they had drawn 15-15 with in 2008 - to run out 31-12 winners in Tashkent.
HSBC ASIAN FIVE NATIONS 2009 RESULTS
Korea 65-0 Singapore, Japan 87-10 Kazakhstan, Hong Kong 6-59 Japan, Kazakhstan 30-27 Korea, Korea 36-34 Hong Kong, Singapore 19-22 Kazakhstan, Japan 80-9 Korea, Hong Kong 64-6 Singapore, Singapore 15-45 Japan, Kazakhstan 25-6 Hong Kong.
Chinese Taipei 36-24 Sri Lanka, Arabian Gulf 36-17 Thailand, Sri Lanka 51-17 Thailand, Arabian Gulf 44-24 Chinese Taipei
China 25-19 Pakistan, Malaysia 43-29 India, India 44-3 Pakistan, Malaysia 43-15 China
Guam 23-3 Indonesia, Philippines 15-0 Iran, Iran 48-13 Indonesia, Philippines 25-0 Guam
LAOS: Laos 28-8 Brunei, Brunei 21-10 Cambodia, Laos 8-3 Cambodia
UZBEKISTAN: Kyrgyzstan 38-21 Mongolia, Uzbekistan 31-12 Kyrgyzstan
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