Singapore and Sri Lanka will battle it out for promotion to the elite tier of the HSBC Asian 5 Nations after enjoying contrasting results in their Division I encounters with Malaysia and Chinese Taipei respectively on Wednesday.
Hosts Singapore made life difficult for themselves by having to play for nearly 50 minutes with 14-men after wing Muhammad Zaki was red carded for tripping, but held on to beat Malaysia 22-20 at the Yio Chu Kang Stadium.
Missing captain Ben Wheeler through injury, Singapore started brightly and opened up a 16-0 lead with two Tom Burns penalties and tries from forwards Andrew Bennett and Matt Roberts.
Malaysia, making their debut in Division I after winning the tier below last year, managed to keep themselves in the game thanks to some inspirational play from their captain Nik Safuan Imade, who scored a try to cut the deficit to 16-8 at half time.
In the second half, Malaysia started to exploit the space created by their man advantage, spreading the ball wide to make the most of their pace and tiring the Singapore forwards with Kini Rasolosolo scoring his side's second try.
Burns kicked two further penalties to edge Singapore out to 19-13 just past the hour mark, but Malaysia refused to give up the cause and were rewarded when Dineswaran Krishnan made a break before offloading for Viliame Tuinivanua to race clear to touch down and make it 22-20.
Top 5 target
The victory moves Singapore a step closer to realising coach Danny Tauroa's target of securing an immediate return to the Top 5 with Asia's elite nations by winning a second Division I title in three years.
"We looked at this game similar to the way we looked at playing Japan last year in the Top 5," explained Tauroa, whose side were relegated from the elite tier after four losses in 2009.
"We knew if we gave Malaysia too much space we would be under real pressure so it was important to play to keep our structure. We knew if we held on to the ball and didn't give them possession they would get frustrated and I am really happy that we played a very disciplined match."
"We have been looking towards this game since the end of the Top 5 last year and getting back to that level is something we have talked about as a team.
"We feel we are a Top 5 team and we want to be playing more than two tests a year at Asia level. We know we can play four or five tests on the trot like we did last year.
"We are definitely better for our experience in the Top 5 and today we showed that and have taken another step towards our goal of getting back there next year. Now it is important we rest and recover and focus on what we need to do to avoid any letdowns against Sri Lanka."
Malaysia's huge strides
Tauroa's counterpart Dean Herewini was pleased with Malaysia's efforts, but knows they let a victory slip from their grasp in their quest to retain their Division I status and continue a development which saw them rise 10 places in the IRB World Rankings last year.
"With our penalty count, particularly in the first half, we didn't make it easy on ourselves and we kind of lost a bit of shape early on, but I am very pleased with the way we came back in the second half and how we got some structure back into our game as more time went on," he said.
"It is tough to lose such a close match and the guys will know that we let one slip away there. But it is a real achievement for us to get this close to Singapore, who traditionally have been stronger than us.
"It will be hard for the guys to see this tonight but we have made some huge strides since coming up from Division II. Now we need to pick ourselves up, focus on what we didn't do right tonight and play error-free football against Chinese Taipei.
"Our goal has always been to maintain our Division I status and we haven't done that yet so there is still everything left to play for."
Highs and lows for Sri Lanka
Malaysia must beat Chinese Taipei in the other match on Saturday to avoid a swift return to Division II, their opponents having fallen 37-7 to Sri Lanka in the opening Asian 5 Nations match of the year.
Sri Lanka fielded one of their strongest ever line ups in the three-year history of the Asian 5 Nations simply had too much for a young Chinese Taipei outfit with an eye on developing for the future.
However, it was not all positive news for Sri Lanka with one of their key players, fly half Fazil Marija, suffering a hairline fracture of his foot in the opening minutes of the match.
The third place play-off between Malaysia and Chinese Taipei on Saturday will be preceded by a women's international between Singapore and Malaysia, the first time any Asian 5 Nations tournament has had a women's match as a curtain raiser.
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