x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Asian Five Nations: UAE and other underdogs are gaining ground

Japan remain formidable at the top but sustained efforts by others, including UAE, is reflecting in the results.

The last time UAE played Japan, home conditions mattered little as Takashi Kikutani, centre, and his teammates won 111-0. Jeffrey E Biteng / The Nationala
The last time UAE played Japan, home conditions mattered little as Takashi Kikutani, centre, and his teammates won 111-0. Jeffrey E Biteng / The Nationala

When the Asian Five Nations was originally invented in 2008, the stated intention was to raise the standard of play on the continent, and eventually give Japan some competition.

While "eventually" is proving a long time, seeing as the Japanese remain in a league of their own, at least some of the competition's targets have been achieved.

Hong Kong, who have been the main driving force behind the tournament, for example, have profited greatly. Before 2008, they were miles behind South Korea, who were Japan's closest rivals.

Now they genuinely rival them as Asia's second-best in the XVs game, and are targeting core status on the world stage in the sevens format.

Further down the ladder, nations such as Sri Lanka and the Philippines have substantial support from their public for the sport, all the more so since they have had a proper competition in which to compete.

And in four of the five editions of the competition to date, the side representing this region whether it be the Arabian Gulf or UAE have been a top-flight team. Somehow. This season, maintaining that status is likely to prove tougher than ever.

Japan

It is questionable what use there is in having Japan in the Asian Five Nations. The continent's eternal rugby superpower have won every game they have played in their five years in this tournament, and by a bonus point each time.

Nobody has been close to beating them in a single match, let alone the league table.

The UAE host the Japanese at The Sevens on May 10. The last time that happened, the home side surrendered 111 unanswered points. The only occasion they touched the ball in the first 20 minutes was to take kick-offs.

With Eddie Jones, the former Australia coach, honing his plans for the 2015 World Cup, there is little to suggest any side will be spared this time, either.

"A couple of our senior players are playing in Super Rugby this season, which will give the youngsters a wonderful chance to step up," Jones said.

South Korea

The Koreans, who were unchallenged as Asian rugby's second-best nation for years, until the inception of the Five Nations, had a point to prove last year.

They were just rebounding from the shock of relegation in 2010, and they managed to regain some lost pride as they finished runners-up to Japan.

Nevertheless, the UAE still regard their fixture against the Koreans next Friday in Al Ain as winnable and with good reason, too.

The Arabian Gulf condemned South Korea to relegation with victory at the Sevens in 2010, which proved it can be done.

"Even last year, we were 21-all after 60 minutes and they put three tries on us in the last 20 minutes, which made the scoreboard look worse," said Brett Williams, the UAE captain. "It is in Al Ain this time, so hopefully we'll be able to better that."

Hong Kong

In their final year before being divided into the constituent nations, the Arabian Gulf actually beat Hong Kong in a classic encounter in Bahrain.

Given their advance in recent times, though, Hong Kong now easily outstrip their rivals from the UAE in their twice-yearly "Battle of the Expat Brats."

So far ahead are they now, Hong Kong have chosen to rest most of their leading backs, with a view to bolster their credentials in the seven-a-side game as well.

"When you get a more mature market and you have more players, and local players coming through, good for them," said Duncan Hall, the UAE performance manager.

The reasons for their rapid progress are many, but one of which is the funding they have managed to attract to the sport in Hong Kong.

"They are a major cash cow, even compared to some of the established unions," Wayne Marsters, the UAE rugby manager, once explained.

UAE

The trouble with progress is that everyone is at it. The national team have done much in preparation that they have been unable to do before.

Murray Pedersen, their full-time conditioning expert, has overseen a lengthy fitness programme. Detailed video analysis of their warm-up matches has been shared via Dropbox.

They managed a three-day camp in Cyprus, during which they crammed a month's worth of training into one long weekend.

And the new training kit and travelling gear even arrived, via China, just in time for departure for the first game.

These small things may be unknown riches over here. They are hardly likely to have Japan with their former Wallabies coach, their flotilla of MacBook-savvy analysts and their hyperbaric recovery chambers quaking in their boots, though.

"The other sides are still the same as you always play," Hall said at the team's final training session before leaving for Hong Kong this week.

"Japan are fully professional, Hong Kong have a semi-pro system, Korea have more or less a pro system, albeit in a small market of four main clubs. But we think we have improved."

Philippines

Whoever finishes at the bottom of the Asian Five Nations will be demoted and replaced by Sri Lanka, who have already sealed promotion back to the top flight.

In all likelihood, relegation is likely to be settled when the UAE meet the Philippines Volcanoes in Manila in five weeks' time.

"We need to win at least one match during the Asian Five Nations series to remain in the elite division for 2014," Michael Letts, the Philippines captain, was quoted as saying.

As such, the UAE side are hopeful that they can secure a points cushion by the time they head there.

"We really want to try to get a win against Korea so it doesn't come down to the last match in Manila as to whether we stay up or not," the captain Williams said. "That is always a possibility and they are a bit of an unknown."

 

pradley@thenational.ae

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