SEONGNAM, SOUTH KOREA // It was a roller-coaster end to a roller-coaster tournament as UAE lost 47-21 to South Korea in a final game of the 2012 Asian Five Nations Championship that was much closer for much longer than the scoreline suggested.
The UAE took an early lead and twice fought back to level proceedings at Seongnam Stadium just south of Seoul. It was only at the hour mark, when the scores were level at 21-21, that the fitness and speed of the South Koreans started to tell against a tiring UAE team that was encouraged by a fighting performance against the second-placed team in the tournament.
"We started better than we finished in both this game and the tournament itself," said UAE Performance Manager Duncan Hall. "We played to our full potential here and that's all we can ask.
"In the first half we were disciplined and used the ball well but in the second half, we struggled to get possession and we were pinned back for most of the time. The Koreans are fit and fast and toward the end we started to tire, we just didn't have the legs."
Though they started as underdogs, UAE drew first blood after six minutes, just reward for their ambition. A clever little chip over the Korean defence inside their own 22 sent Tim Fletcher free.
Korean flanker Lee Kwang-moon soon hit back to level proceedings. Prior to the match, UAE had talked of the threat that Korea's speed posed out wide but for the first 30 minutes the hosts rarely threatened to get in good positions but that all changed on the half-hour as You Young-nam, a professional based in Japan, put the hosts ahead.
Just when it seemed as if the boys in blue were finally were taking control, UAE hit back on the stroke of half-time. The Korean defence repulsed a number of attacks in the shadow of the posts but could do nothing as full-back Imad Reyal danced past two men to dive over the line and level the score at 14-14.
Yoo, one of Korea's three professional players based in Japan, admitted that the going had been tough. "They have good forwards and backs and in the first half, they put us under more pressure than we expected,they gave us no space or time and we made too many mistakes" said the flanker. "We struggled to find any fluency but that changed in the second half."
Korea took the lead immediately after the restart as Korea's pack drove forward and Shin Young-jin made the touchdown but once again UAE hit back in impressive style.
Fletcher broke through the middle to leave Murray Strang with the easiest of conversions and if the fly-half's penalty a few minutes later had not hit the post, the final result could have turned out differently.
Perhaps not however as the Koreans scored four tries in the final 20 minutes to clinch the win and second place in a front of an appreciative home crowd.
For the visitors, it was a far cry from the opening game of the tournament when they crashed to a heavy defeat against Hong Kong as captain Alistair Thompson pointed out.
"This was our best performance of the tournament," he said. "We lost 85-10 to Hong Kong, Korea went to Hong Kong and won but for 60 minutes today, against Korea in Korea, we were completely in the game. I think that in the latter stages, our average age started to show."
South Korean coach Seo Chun-oh admitted that he had much to think about at the break after watching his team struggle.
"In the first half, it was very difficult for us," said Seo. "We didn't get the ball forward as much as we wanted. In the second half, we tried to run the ball a little more and we improved very much. We started to put them under pressure and then as the time went on, we found the gaps in their defence. I think we can be satisfied in the second half against a good team."
One more try from the visitors would have given them an extra bonus point to ensure that they wouldn't have to worry about Kazakhstan recording an unlikely victory in Hong Kong that could relegate UAE to the second tier for the 2013 competition. It mattered not as Hong Kong won 55-0 later in the day.
While Hall admitted his frustration that the point had not been taken, he professed himself to be satisfied with the past two months.
"I think that we were a little underdone against Hong Kong but we came back from that and we can take a lot of positives. We have a lot of hard work to do but we have come a long way as we showed today."