x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Asian Five Nations rugby: Laos punch above height against Pakistan

Their numbers may be small in comparison but the aptitude of the South East Asians is huge, writes Paul Radley.

Pakistan, in light green, were the more experienced but Laos ran them close in their Asian Five Nations match in Dubai. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Pakistan, in light green, were the more experienced but Laos ran them close in their Asian Five Nations match in Dubai. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

As one of rugby union's most upwardly mobile nations, Japan, applied some gloss ahead of their latest continental coronation, one of the more obscure fixtures in world sport was being played out on a neighbouring field in Dubai last night.

On Pitch 1 at The Sevens, Japan, hosts of the 2019 World Cup, were being put through their paces by their former Australia coach at training, ahead of their Test against the UAE tomorrow.

They have the best tackle bags, laptops and analysis software money can buy.

They may have been separated by barely a 100 yards at this rugby complex. But the Japanese are about 100 years ahead of the action that was simultaneously taking place on Pitch 2: Pakistan 31-25 Laos in Division Four of the Asian Five Nations.

It is hardly rugby's clasico just yet. But at least they have made a start.

Pakistan – population in excess 180 million – have just over 3,000 rugby players, if you believe the official records.

The players themselves, though, reckon there are little more than a couple of hundred actively participating across their vast country.

Yes, teams from Pakistan have been regulars at the Dubai Rugby Sevens for years now, but that does not mean the sport has percolated too far down the nation's sporting consciousness.

You only needed to listen to some of the walk-up supporters to understand that rugby is still an acquired taste in Pakistan.

"Come on, fat boys!" said one spectator, dressed in cricket whites having wandered over from the field adjacent to the rugby ground when he heard his compatriots were playing.

The fact their opponents from South-east Asia even got close to beating them says much for the unlikely triumph of spirit over adversity.

According to the official union statistics on the International Rugby Board website, Laos - population just over 6 million - have precisely nil registered clubs, players or qualified coaches.

Well, on this evidence, they are doing a little bit better than that. They fielded a full team against Pakistan, with a full substitutes bench, too.

They even had a multilingual video-analyst. And some of the running skills which their players - diminutive in stature against the Pakistanis, but large in courage - brought to bear would put many an established player to shame.

Their aptitude flies in the face of some obvious challenges. For example, five of the Laos players missed final training before departing for Dubai as they had to be in the field harvesting rice.

According to Chris Mastoglio, the English fly-half who has overseen the development of rugby during eight years working there, Laos rugby is starting to see the fruits of a long-terms schools programme.

"It is growing but these things take time and this has been a big step up for us," the 33 year old said.

"You could see the size difference was big between our players and theirs, but we are happy we were able to push them so close."

pradley@thenational.ae

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