United Arab Emirates left Colombo with relief etched all over their faces after drawing 13-13 with Sri Lanka in waterlogged conditions, but are now attempting to take a giant step forward in their quest to stay in the HSBC Asian 5 Nations Top 5 by beating Kazakhstan.
The UAE, who have replaced the disbanded Arabian Gulf in the top tier of Asian rugby, were grateful that Sri Lanka had a try disallowed in the dying seconds and captain Mike Cox-Hill admits they learned some valuable lessons in round one.
“That result has underlined the fact that in international rugby, one has to take every opportunity that presents itself. It proved that we need to play a full 80 minutes, especially the last five minutes which are crucial in an international,” explained Cox-Hill.
“Given the conditions we faced in Colombo it was not a bad result to come away with. I guess Sri Lanka must be feeling disappointed that we got away with a draw, but the conditions were a great leveller.
“Now we must look forward and try to seal our place in this competition by beating Kazakhstan. The importance of beating Kazakhstan cannot be understated. The good thing this week is that we are back on familiar ground. We know the pitch, we know the conditions and with the help of our home fans, hopefully we will be able to get a win.”
The first Asian 5 Nations match to be played in Abu Dhabi has taken on added significance for Kazakhstan following their opening loss to Hong Kong, with the 2010 runners up knowing that victory is an absolute must if they are to match their finish of last year.
Kazakhstan will be without blindside flanker Ilya Poplaskiy and hooker Mikhail Solovyev who were both sent off for foul play against Hong Kong, but captain Timur Mashurov is demanding an improved performance and a fast start at the Zayed Sports City on Friday.
Challenge awaits in Hong Kong
“This game is the most important match for us in the A5N,” insisted Mashurov. “If we lose in Abu Dhabi we could be relegated, but the atmosphere is good in the squad. We know that if we play the same we played in the second half against Hong Kong, when even with only 13 players we were attacking. If all 15 of us play with that same spirit from the first minute, the result will take of itself.”
Japan coach John Kirwan has also demanded his players “set the standard early on” in their opening Asian 5 Nations match of a year which will culminate at Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand. The World Cup winner back in 1987 has named three uncapped players in his line-up to face Hong Kong, a side they brushed aside 94-5 in last year’s Top 5 competition.
The Brave Blossoms, who have won all 12 of their Asian 5 Nations matches with a bonus point, will see scrum half Atsushi Hiwasa, full back Taihei Ueda and second row Justin Ives wear the Japanese jersey for the first time at the Hong Kong Football Club against a side that surprised Kazakhstan to win 23-10 in Almaty last weekend.
While Kirwan is expecting a degree of rustiness in his side’s first match of 2011, his counterpart Dai Rees knows the size of the task facing Hong Kong against the dominant force in Asian rugby, one not helped by the loss of five players from the Kazakhstan victory as a result of injuries.
“We have had to make five changes to the team for this weekend, but the incoming players have been involved with us throughout the build up, and I am confident that they will step up to the challenge,” admitted Rees. “Most of the changes come in the forward pack and fortunately we have been able to retain some consistency with an unchanged backline.
“I think this is the best backline we have been able to put out for a number of years. The emphasis this week will again be on the forwards to provide ball and a reasonable platform for us to compete. We need to make sure that Japan don’t build momentum like they did last year in Tokyo.
“Making changes ahead of Japan isn’t ideal, but we know what Japan are. Japan are the biggest test match we have on an annual basis and is the key clash for our 15-a-side players each year. Playing Japan lets us know how good we are as players and as a team, and the lads relish that challenge.”
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