When Mike Cox-Hill, the Arabian Gulf captain, said his side deserved a lot of credit after their hefty 60-5 defeat in Japan yesterday, it highlighted the one glitch in Asian rugby's attempts to manufacture a competitive elite division. The HSBC Asian Five Nations was started in 2008 as the flagship event in a new system of tournaments designed to increase competitiveness in rugby on the continent.
In some regards, the Asian Rugby Football Union's (ARFU) target has been met. So evenly matched have four of the sides in the Top Five tournament been this season, the crucial runners-up spot - which carries with it a World Cup play-off place - is still up for grabs going into the final fortnight. However, what can the ARFU do about the problem of Japan? Three seasons in, they are still so far ahead of their rivals that they are virtually in an elite division of their own.
Depending on your standpoint, the Gulf were approximately twice as good - or half as bad - as in 2008, the last time they travelled to Japan. Back then they were humiliated 114-6 in Osaka, in a match that was aired live on Showsports in the Middle East. Keeping the Brave Blossoms to a 55-point margin of defeat this time was a minor triumph for the part-timers from the GCC, given the relative resources.
The Japanese, who are 13th in the International Rugby Board rankings, have played at every World Cup since its inception in 1987. There are almost 30 times as many registered players in Japan than in the Gulf. Indeed, there are nearly as many registered referees in Japan as there are players in the Gulf. James Arlidge, the starting fly-half for the Welsh Magners League side, Newport Gwent Dragons, orchestrated the victory yesterday from No 10 for Japan, his adopted national team. Kaora Matsushita also touched down a hat-trick of tries for the home side.
All the plucky visitors had to show for their efforts in Tokyo was a late try for Sean Hurley, the Dubai Dragons back and Gulf sevens captain. "I couldn't ask much more from the boys," said Cox-Hill, the Arabian Gulf captain. "We never gave up and proved that by scoring in the 76th minute. We can take a lot of credit for the way we played." The tournament has become more of a selection trial for Japan, as they look ahead to next year's showpiece in New Zealand.