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Asia’s road to the 2015 World Cup in England started yesterday with the kick-off of the HSBC Asian 5 Nations Division I championships in Manila. The tournament is doubling as the first round of a three-year qualification process for the region. In yesterday’s matches, Sri Lanka and the Philippines cleared early hurdles with bonus point wins to top the table after round one on six points each.
Sri Lanka neatly dispatched Chinese Taipei 36-8 in the first match, while Philippines and Singapore engaged in a high-scoring showdown in the evening with the hosts enjoying the honours after a 37-20 win.
From the outset, Sri Lanka proved too much for Chinese Taipei, using its size up front to great advantage before releasing the ball to its fleet-footed backline. Scrumhalf Srinath Sooriyabandara and winger Sandun Herath proved to be constant danger men whose incisive running broke down the Chinese Taipei defence early and often.
After scoring in the opening minute, Sri Lanka never looked back and established a commanding 29-3 lead in the first half, including scoring four tries to earn a bonus point and put the result out of reach. But the second half saw the Sri Lankans’ composure fade as three of their front row forwards were sin-binned, giving Chinese Taipei a man advantage for large swathes of the second period.
Although not reflected in the final scoreline, Chinese Taipei battled bravely in the second half with a try to scrumhalf Chen Chia Han coming as a just reward for what was a tough day at the office for the tournament’s fourth seeds against the top-ranked Sri Lankans.
Sri Lanka was led in the scoring stakes by fullback Rizah Mubarak who slotted three conversions and one penalty for nine points on the afternoon. Five other Sri Lankans scored tries in an evenly balanced offensive display.
Ex-England international Phil Greening marked his maiden test victory as coach of Sri Lanka, saying, “I’m pleased with the win. It is always tough to open a tournament, particularly as the lads have had six months since their last test match. We have a very young team with quite a few guys getting their first caps today, so it’s a good first step but there is a lot of work for us to do yet.
“The first half was great but we lost our composure in areas and got frustrated which resulted in the yellow cards. It wasn’t reflected so much in the score but it showed a lack of control on our part. But the young lads will have taken a lot away from today’s match and I’ve got my first win with the team on our first outing, so it was a good effort and we can build on that,” added Greening.
In the second match of the day, the hometown heroes, the Philippines Volcanoes, also jumped out to an early lead against higher-seeded Singapore (second seeds), putting 12 points on the board without reply in the first ten minutes. Centre Matt Saunders opened the scoring with a try which was converted by his brother, flyhalf Oliver Saunders. The Saunders siblings are one of three sets of brothers in the Philippines squad for Division I.
Winger Joseph Matthews scored the second try for the Volcanoes, one of two for him on the afternoon, to push the Philippines ahead 12-0 before Singapore got on the board through a well-taken penalty by flyhalf Suhaimi Amran.
The Philippines scored twice more in the opening half through centre Patrice Olivier and Oliver Saunders, who converted his own try to edge the Volcanoes out to 24-3 before a final penalty to Amran brought the score to 24-6 at the half. Oliver Saunders led the scoring today with 12 points from a try, two conversions and a penalty.
The second half saw Singapore’s Rugby Lions come roaring back as they crossed the line through prop Riady Perdana in the 44th minute. The successful conversion brought Singapore within striking range of the lead at 24-13.
But the Volcanoes replied quickly through Matthews’ second try, converted by Saunders, to extend the gap to 32-13. Singapore refused to lay down, battling for every ball before No. 8 Peter McFeely scored Singapore’s second try in the 75th minute to edge further into contention at 32-20 after Amran’s second conversion.
With the game potentially in the balance, Philippines’ fullback Michael Letts scored a captain’s try to put paid to Singaporean hopes for a comeback and put the Volcanoes clear for good at 37-20.
Philippines Coach Expo Mejia said: “We’re very happy with the result today. It was always going to be a difficult match first up with second versus third seeds and you never know what Singapore will throw at you so I’m pleased to get the result we needed.
“Full credit to Singapore they never let us run away with the match and they fought back particularly well in the second half and were always within striking range. I never felt that the game was out of our control but I think we should have perhaps closed the game out earlier. We need to be a bit more clinical. But there is a good base for us now to build on and the crowd support tonight was fantastic. Our core rugby community was here as always but we are drawing new crowds and hopefully the more we win the bigger the crowd is going to get this week.”
Today’s results leave the Volcanoes and Sri Lanka tied at the top of the standings with six points each while Singapore and Chinese Taipei have zero points each.
In a first for the tournament, now in its 5th year, the HSBC A5N Division I tournament has been expanded into a round robin format with each team playing three matches over seven days. On Wednesday, April 18, Sri Lanka will face Singapore (17.00) in what should be a tight match, while fourth seeds Chinese Taipei will need to regroup to face the home favourites Philippines (19.00).
Mr Koji Tokomasu, Council Member of the International Rugby Board (IRB) and General Manager of the local organizing committee for the Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan, was on hand to help officially launch the Asian qualifiers for Rugby World Cup 2015 this afternoon. Mr Tokomasu brought the Webb Ellis Cup, the trophy presented to the winners of the quadrennial Rugby World Cup, to Manila for the opening round of matches. It is the first time that the Webb Ellis Cup has been in the Philippines and the trophy drew strong interest from the crowd of nearly 2,000 in attendance for the matches.