Sri Lanka hooker Namal Rajapaksa barrels through the Thai defence
Sri Lanka kept their World Cup dreams alive and stayed on course towards reaching the HSBC Asian Five Nations (HSBC A5N) Top Five competition – Asia’s World Cup qualifiers - next year with a convincing 45-7 win over Thailand on Wednesday.
The hosts made it two-from-two and kept their unbeaten run alive in the HSBC A5N Division One competition, but more importantly secured their second consecutive bonus point running in six tries, which keeps them on top of the four-team standings with maximum points (12 points) from their two matches.
“We have one more step to take before we can start celebrating,” said Sri Lanka captain and openside flanker Yoshitha Rajapaksa. “But I’m happy with the way we are playing. It was a much-improved performance from our opening game.”
An exhilarating display of open rugby from Sri Lanka’s fleet-footed backs, who accounted for all of the tries, plus a dominant pack which ruled the set pieces, gave Sri Lanka the freedom to rule unhindered at Havelocks Sports Club.
If their opening 39-8 win over Chinese-Taipei was a Jekyll-and-Hyde performance – the side only coming alive in the second-half with five tries – the Thailand performance was complete, although the home team seemed to take the foot off the pedal once they scored their fourth try and was ensured of a bonus point.
Winger Sandun Herath and centre Pradeep Liyanage grabbed a brace each while scrum-half Roshan Weerarathna and winger Chamara Dabare also dotted down for a try apiece as Sri Lanka gave the capacity crowd of 4,800 a feast of running rugby. Fullback Reza Mubarak was also in fine form with the boot, collecting 15 points from three penalties and three conversions.
“Our backs played well and used the possession very well. Our target was to get the bonus point and we knew we had to score tries,” said Rajapaksa.
A change in strategy off the pitch helped Kazakhstan regain its confidence and composure on the pitch as they bounced back from their opening game shock loss to Thailand with a convincing 42-10 victory over Chinese-Taipei in the opening match of the day.
Fullback Maxim Lifontov gave a master-class in goal-kicking as he knocked over six penalties and two conversions to collect a personal haul of 22 points as Kazakhstan overcame the torrid temperatures of Colombo.
Unlike in their opening game, Kazakhstan warmed up in the air-conditioned comfort of their dressing room and only came out minutes before the kick-off fresh and intent on wiping out the memories of their first-ever defeat by Thailand in international rugby on Sunday last.
“We have been training early in the morning, at six am, and trying to avoid staying in the sun as much as possible. I think we are also getting used to the heat and it showed in a much-improved performance today,” said Kazakhstan coach Timur Mashurov.
Kazakhstan led 26-0 at the break thanks to a much-improved performance from the forwards led strongly by flanker Oleg Guselnikov (who played at scrumhalf in the loss to Thailand last Sunday) and No.8 and skipper Serik Zhanseitov.
Two early penalties from Lifontov settled nerves before tries from centre Alexandr Zakharov, flyhalf Daulet Akymbekov and captain Zhanseitov extended the lead with Lifontov adding a conversion and another penalty.
The pick of the opening half burst was the last try by Zhanseitov who was on hand to complete a lovely break by lock Grigoriy Ivanchenko who peeled from the back of a lineout 40 metres out. A powerful burst down the middle caught the defence napping before an inside pass sent Zhanseitov untouched to the tryline.
Akymbekov grabbed his second try soon after the break to ensure Kazakhstan would get a vital bonus point for scoring four tries. Lifontov then took over, knocking over every opportunity as Kazakhstan eased off, intent on keeping their energy levels.
Chinese-Taipei scored two consolation tries through Chung Po-yan and Ho Ming-hsien despite losing winger Chen Chifi-kang to a red card. Down to 14 men, the pressure eased off on Kazakhstan as they rang in the changes to give their top players a rest.
“Our idea from the outset was to secure a bonus point by scoring four tries and I’m happy we did it with the minimum fuss,” said a pleased Mashurov.
But he was less than pleased to see influential lock forward Anton Makarenko picking up a red card for a spear tackle on Taipei’s Chuan Wen-hao. Makarenko is set to miss the next match against Sri Lanka on Saturday.
“It will be a huge loss. He is a key player and a ball-winning forward,” said Mashurov. “But we are now in a position to win this tournament. Our fate is in our hands.”
The winner of Division One will earn promotion to the elite HSBC A5N Top Five competition next year.
Sri Lanka top the standings on 12 points (five points for each win plus two bonus points for scoring four or more tries in their matches); Kazakhstan is on six points (five for the win plus a bonus point for scoring over four tries today); Thailand is on five points from their opening win over Kazakhstan while Chinese Taipei has yet to get on the table.
Both Sri Lanka and Kazakhstan have a chance to be promoted to next year’s Top 5. A straight win for Sri Lanka over Kazakhstan will see them promoted, while Kazakhstan need to a bonus point win over the hosts this Saturday (April 6) while holding Sri Lanka without a bonus point to be promoted.