The HSBC Asian 5 Nations Top 5 kicks off tonight in Dubai as the United Arab Emirates host Hong Kong. Tomorrow, (Apr 28) the Eddie Jones era in Japan begins with an arduous away leg to Almaty to play Kazakhstan. Korea, returning to the Top 5 as Division I champions, has their bye this weekend. The 2012 Top 5 is shaping up to be the most competitive in the five-year history of the HSBC Asian 5 Nations (HSBC A5N), Asia’s premier international rugby competition.
Hong Kong’s ambitious bid to become Asian champions will begin under full international glare with organisers opting to choose the Dubai encounter as the main TV game of the week with ESPN Star Sports broadcasting live to 29 countries across Asia and other international takers reaching Australia, New Zealand, North America, across the Middle East and North Africa.
New Japan coach Eddie Jones has warned that an experienced and physical Hong Kong-side would be the major threat to the Brave Blossoms’ continued reign in Asia. Japan remains undefeated in the last four seasons and despite fielding a new-look team are still heavy favourites.
“Hong Kong has done a good job in developing their team over the last two to three years. I’m sure they’re going to have a very combative, very physical side,” said Jones, who took over from John Kirwan as Japan national coach.
Hong Kong Rugby Football Union’s head of performance and national coach Dai Rees has already stated that the aim this year was to try and “upset the Asian apple cart”.
Rees said: “All of the teams have probably got their best chance in a number of years of upsetting Japan”. He has based his argument on the fact that Jones is rebuilding the Brave Blossoms as Japan looks ahead to the 2015 World Cup and also to entering the world’s top-10 before they host the 2019 World Cup.
Jones, who coached Australia to a World Cup final in 2003, has picked 14 uncapped players from a 30-strong squad tasked with keeping Japan’s firm grip on the Asian title. Hong Kong in turn will field a powerful squad who have been together for the most of the past two seasons, but which has been boosted by a new front-row – props Ian Ridgway and Steve Nolan and hooker Tom Bolland – who will all make their Asian Five Nations debut (although Nolan has been ruled out due to injury ahead of the opener). Gritty No 8 Pale Tauti assumes the Hong Kong captaincy for the campaign.
The UAE will have their hands full trying to stop an exceptional Hong Kong backline, which will be expertly marshalled by fly-half Keith Robertson. Recent history also suggests that the UAE will be in for a tough time – having lost by half-century scores to Hong Kong on the last two occasions they met. But UAE coach Duncan Hall remains optimistic. He has rung in the changes, with only five players surviving a heavy Top 5 loss in Hong Kong last year.
“We only have two forwards and three backs from that team. This is a new side with not a lot of experience but I’m confident they will go well,” Hall said.
The UAE blooded 10 new caps against Tunisia in a warm-up game earlier this month and Hall will hope they will have learned important lessons from the narrow loss in Tunis as they commence their A5N campaign.
“Our plan is to remain in the Top Five this year. If we manage to do that, I will be satisfied,” Hall said.
The Japan side that will take part in this year’s HSBC A5N will be virtually unrecognizable to those who haven’t followed Japan’s Top League closely. And even then there are some who will still struggle. Eddie Jones initially named just eight survivors from last year's Rugby World Cup in his 30-man squad for the A5N. But within a few weeks that was down to just four.
Atsushi Hiwasa, Fumiaki Tanaka and Shota Horie have all – with Jones’ blessing – opted to play overseas, while Koji Taira has withdrawn after some fitness issues. Toshiaki Hirose, whose only cap came five years ago against Hong Kong, leads the side that contains a mix of youngsters and veterans making a return to the international fold.
“We have picked a side firstly to win the Asian Five Nations, but also moving towards the 2015 World Cup,”said Jones. “We have a balance of experienced players and rookies who we believe have the potential to be the best in 2015.”
Leading the veterans are Hirotoki Onozawa and Hitoshi Ono with 68 and 54 caps, respectively.
At the other end of the extreme is Yoshikazu Fujita, who represented Higashi Fukuoka High School during the HSBC World Sevens Series, but who is now a student at Japanese rugby factory Waseda University.
“Fujita may not be the best right wing in Japan at the moment but by 2015 he could be one of the best in the world,”Jones said of the 18 year old.
Jones has admitted that picking so many untested players was a gamble.
“They all have potential but how quickly they get up to speed, I'm not sure. It's like planting a bamboo bulb. It will flourish--you just don't know when.”
Michael Leitch is the only foreign-born player in the team, though it is likely Luke Thompson and Ryu Holani will rejoin the fold later in the season, once they have recovered from injury.
“There will be more foreign-born players but they have to be good enough,”Jones explained.
Other new caps include Ryuhei Arita, who led Japan at the 2009 Junior World Championship in Tokyo.
Kosei Ono and Takamichi Sasakiboth return to national colours, having previously played for Japan at the 2007 World Cup before being deemed surplus to requirements, while Shoji Ito and Yuta Mochizuki are both set to make their international debuts despite being the wrong side of 30.
“You can't pick a side of kids,”Jones said. “Some of the experienced players may not make the next World Cup. But they will teach the young players how to train, prepare and react under pressure. How long they stay in the team depends on their performance.”
Following the team’s first camp, Jones admitted there was plenty of work to do but he was excited about the upcoming season.
“We had a really enthusiastic session, some rookies plus some experienced players have given the squad a good feel,” he said.
“I want the Brave Blossoms to play a very attacking style. We’ll be out to use the ball to create space and to control the defence. It’ll be very good rugby to watch and we’re going to win.”
Also today in Dubai is the 3rd/4th place play-off and finals of the HSBC A5N Division IV championships, which sees a rematch of last year’s finals day as Jordan face Uzbekistan in the play-off and defending champions Qatar line up against Lebanon in the final. Those matches will be held at 15.30 and 17.45 at The Sevens in Dubai.
As testament to the growth at the developmental end of Asian rugby, Afghanistan will make its Asian Rugby Football Union debut this afternoon in a series of exhibition sevens matches against UAE Shaheen, the all-Emirati development team of the UAE Rugby Association. Those matches will serve as curtain-raisers for the Division IV games and the opening kick-off of the Top 5 at 20.00.
Japan and Hong Kong to tussle for Asian crown in 2012?