Hong Kong may be the Emirates Airline Cup of Nations defending champions but coach Dai Rees insists his focus for the four-time tournament which kicks off in Dubai on Saturday is to develop greater strength in depth.
Nine uncapped players have travelled to Dubai for the 8-14 December tournament at 7he Sevens, a venue which only last weekend hosted rounds of the HSBC Sevens World Series and IRB Women’s Sevens World Series.
Hong Kong will open their title defence against Zimbabwe before tackling the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday and Belgium – the highest placed of the quartet in the IRB World Rankings – next Friday.
“The Cup of Nations is all about developing our players against competition outside Asia and it is going to be vital for us to get experience to stay in the Top 5 in next year’s Asian 5 Nations and ensure we are still on track for our goal of qualifying for the Rugby World Cup,” said Rees, the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union’s Head of Performance.
“We want the new guys to put their hands up. Next season is going to be crucial for Hong Kong at both Sevens and Fifteens and we hope to develop added depth in players.”
Belgium and Zimbabwe make their debuts in a tournament that featured Brazil and Kenya in its inaugural edition in 2011 and competition is expected to be tough with Hong Kong and the newcomers ranked between 23 and 30 in the IRB World Rankings.
Journey into the unknown
The UAE have just become a Full Member Union of the International Rugby Board and as a result enter the rankings with a rating of 30.00. This puts them joint 96th with other new entrants American Samoa and Greece, so could rise significantly if they can cause an upset or two over the next week.
Rees and his Hong Kong charges will be heading into unchartered territory somewhat having never faced Belgium or Zimbabwe before, but they have played the UAE three times, the smallest winning margin being 58 points in the Cup of Nations last year.
“We don’t know much about our opposition which is exactly what we wanted from our end of season tour. We are familiar with the UAE having played them regularly in the A5N, but Belgium and Zimbabwe are unknown quantities,” added Rees.
“They are the respective champions at their various levels with Zimbabwe being the African champions and Belgium the equivalent of Division 1 champions in Europe, so we believe they will both be tougher and more organised than last year’s international teams in Dubai. We are definitely expecting a tougher time of it this year.
“Zimbabwe recently played a triangular (series) in Namibia with the hosts and Spain so they will have had some quality opposition ahead of Dubai and that is going to be an advantage for them. Belgium has a lot of guys who play in the upper divisions in the French league so we suspect that they may be the strongest opponents in Dubai.
Youth and experience
“For us it isn’t just about defending our title. We want to win of course and it would be great to defend our title, but our ultimate goal is not to win the tournament, but to develop our players. We are going to compete, but we will be prioritising performance from the squad more than the results.”
UAE coach Duncan Hall will field 13 uncapped players in his match-day squad to tackle European Nations Cup 2012 Division 1B champions Belgium in the opening encounter on Saturday at 16:00 local time.
“We have a number of players who have recently become eligible to represent the UAE as well as a number who are still recovering from injury so we find ourselves in a situation where we have 13 new caps in this opening game,” admitted Hall.
“The line-up has the experience of some old heads, which gives invaluable knowledge closer in the game, combined with the energy of the younger players. We have set ourselves a number of goals in this opening game and achieving these is our overall priority.”
For Belgium, the tournament is a great warm up for their entry into the top tier of the European Nations Cup in February alongside Georgia, Russia, Romania, Portugal and Spain in a competition which will provide the Europe 1 and 2 qualifiers for RWC 2015.
“Our Union sees that competing in the Cup of Nations is part of a sustained and increased investment in our national team, the Black Devils,” said Jan Coupé, President of the Belgium Rugby Union. “Our men’s national team had a challenging 2011/12 season and we hope that we will enjoy an upturn in fortunes with this winter tour.”
Showcase of talent
Zimbabwe, who will then face Hong Kong at 18:00 local time, arrived in Dubai on the back of losses to Namibia (37-33) and Spain (47-14) in last month’s triangular series but are also building towards the start of their RWC 2015 qualification campaign in 2013.
“We have a fantastic pool of players in Zimbabwe and this is evidenced by the Sables (Fifteens) and Cheetahs (Sevens) both being champions of Africa,” said chairman Bongai Zamchiya.
“We are building towards a RWC 2015 qualification programme and it is critical that we have a pool of key players. Participating in the Cup of Nations will allow our coaches to assess some new caps and allow our players to test themselves at a higher level.”
IRB Head of Performance and Development Mark Egan added: “It is great for rugby in the UAE that the Emirates Airline Cup of Nations is going ahead again this year. As the Game continues to develop in the West Asia region, it is encouraging to see that the UAE national team is maintaining a competitive programme of fixtures.
“It is also a wonderful opportunity for players from the other Unions – Zimbabwe, Hong Kong and Belgium – to showcase their talents and play against teams from other parts of the world. It is interesting to note how close the three visiting teams are on the IRB World Rankings so we should be in for some exciting matches.
“The IRB is pleased to be involved and supporting this initiative. It’s important that cross-regional tournaments such as this take place so the UAERF and Emirates Airline, as well as the other competing Unions, are to be congratulated.”