Defending champions Japan may not enter the HSBC Asian 5 Nations fray until next weekend, but the competition breaks new ground on Saturday when Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates may their debut in the Top 5.
The two sides will come face to face with each other in Colombo with both knowing their best chance of remaining in the elite level next year is to win this game as Japan, 2010 runners up Kazakhstan and Hong Kong will be a tough challenge.
Sri Lanka enter the Top 5 as Division I champions, while the UAE take the place of the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union which ceased to exist at the end of 2010 in an exciting restructure in the region.
“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).
“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 5 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 … The players are carrying the flag of UAE on their chest for the first time. I’m confident they will do us proud.”
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Staying in the Top 5 is the minimum requirement coach Bruce Birtwistle has set his team, although only five players have been retained from the Arabian Gulf which finished a best ever fourth after upsetting both Hong Kong and Korea.
However, this is easier said than done for Birtwistle, the former Arabian Gulf coach who has to work with a reduced pool of players and the loss of key individuals like scrum half Jonny MacDonald.
“We used to be able to draw players from Bahrain, Oman and Qatar in the past, but no more,” said New Zealander Birtwistle. of the Arabian Gulf at the last two campaigns in the HSBC Asian Five Nations.
“We have a reasonable forward pack but the backs are inexperienced … but if we play to our potential we will be a difficult team to handle.”
Sri Lanka will also have a New Zealander at the helm in coach Ellis Meachen, who has previously worked with Tonga and Romania and been brought in for the duration of the Asian 5 Nations competition.
“We realise the importance of this game,” explained Meachen. “Our aim this year is to make certain we are not relegated back into Division I next season.”
One positive in Sri Lanka’s favour is that they play three of their four matches at home in Colombo, their final match with Japan being moved from Tokyo in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami last month.
Key battle in Almaty
While staying in the Top 5 adds an extra frisson to the encounter in Colombo, the other match on the opening weekend is equally important with Hong Kong travelling to Almaty to take on Kazakhstan.
“Hong Kong is a very competitive team,” admitted Kazakhstan captain Timur Mashurov. “They have a very good set-up and are well drilled. 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.”
Hong Kong will have seven players making their Asian 5 Nations debut, including new captain and outside centre Tom McColl, as they attempt to better their best ever finish of third in last year's competition.
“It is a great tournament that is getting bigger, not just the awareness of the tournament but the players and teams are improving rapidly," admitted McColl.
"It will be a big challenge and playing Kazakhstan in Kazakhstan will be one of the sternest tests Hong Kong will face this season. They are physical and have a lot of size around the field but I think we match them man for man in terms of our size and our talent levels.”
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