x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

UAE coach Bruce Birtwistle reflects on Asian Five Nations campaign

After a promising start to their campaign in Asian rugby's top tier, the UAE lose their final match to runaway winners Hong Kong.

The UAE suffered their second successive thrashing in the Asian Five Nations — this time a 62-3 defeat in Hong Kong.
The UAE suffered their second successive thrashing in the Asian Five Nations — this time a 62-3 defeat in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong 62 // UAE 3

Bruce Birtwistle, the UAE coach, reflected on "a job half done" after the national team's HSBC Asian Five Nations campaign ended with a second successive thrashing yesterday.

The UAE's third-place finish in their first season in Asia's top competition was better than the Arabian Gulf, the collective side who represented the region until this year, managed in three attempts.

Their primary ambition of remaining in the top division was achieved, when an opening draw against Sri Lanka then victory over Kazakhstan meant they would not be relegated.

However, their aim of finishing second, and hence be regarded as the best amateur side in Asia, faltered when a 111-0 home loss to Japan was followed by yesterday's 62-3 defeat in Hong Kong.

"We have finished this competition in third, which is our best finish in Asian Five Nations, but it certainly feels like a job half done," said Birtwistle, who will leave his role as head coach to return to his native New Zealand.

"We wanted to stay up and stay out of relegation. We have done that successfully, but we wanted to be the best team in Asia. We were well and truly beaten to that."

The UAE had left Dubai on Thursday morning with some reasons for optimism. When the Arabian Gulf team last played Hong Kong, they beat them in Bahrain.

That was one of five successive home wins that the Birtwistle-coached side - first the Gulf, then the UAE - had enjoyed in the competition.

However, their impressive three-year unbeaten run on home soil had come to a crushing end nine days ago when the professionals from Japan had smashed three-figures against them.

Birtwistle said the confidence of his players had been knocked irrevocable by the landslide loss to Japan, which came in front of one of the largest home crowd many of the UAE players had played before.

"In hindsight, there probably was [a hangover from the Japan match]," he said. "This week was all about self-belief.

"Physically, I think the two teams are relatively evenly matched, but it is all about which team goes out there with the most desire.

"That team tends to prevail, and Hong Kong did that. Maybe it was also a little bit of a backlash in terms of them being upset by the Arabian Gulf in Bahrain last year."

The UAE had hoped they would be able to use their greater experience as a tight-five to assert forward dominance over the home side.

However, their plans went to waste early on when Chris Jones-Griffiths, one of the UAE's standout performers this season, was sin-binned for infringing after a line-out.

Hong Kong made the most of their numerical advantage, and the raw wounds inflicted by Japan eight days earlier were exposed again as the hosts proceeded to run in 10 tries.

Despite the disappointing conclusion to the competition, the UAE have much to celebrate from their first campaign as a single nation, according to Mike Cox-Hill, the captain.

"This has been a great season for the UAE Rugby Association," said the Dubai Exiles lock forward, who also captained the Arabian Gulf's final term in the competition.

"Up until January this year, we didn't exist so we can really take stock of this and build on this and move forward for next year.

"We've seen with Japan and Hong Kong the level that we need to be at and what level we need to be at consistently year-in and year-out. We're up for it, we're up for the challenge."

Champions Japan finish tournament in style

Japan took their points haul past the 200 mark over their final two matches, when they followed their 111-0 win in Dubai with a 90-13 success in Sri Lanka yesterday.

Asia’s No 1 side had already clinched a fourth successive HSBC Asian Five Nations title before heading to Colombo. Defeat confirmed relegation for the Sri Lankans, who will now head back down to Division One and are expected to be replaced by Korea in the top flight.

pradley@thenational.ae