International Rugby Board’s Head of Rugby Services Mark Egan was upbeat about the possibilities of the game’s growth on the continent ahead of the inaugural Asian Five Nations tournament this weekend, launched as a platform to develop and expand the sport here.
Heavyweights Japan are in action against South Korea in Incheon today, while Hong Kong travel to Al Ain to play a Gulf team who make the tournament as the fifth-ranked side in the 22-member Asian Rugby Union.
Kazakhstan make up the numbers in a round-robin format, with Test matches held on five consecutive weekends in April and May.
The standard of rugby in Asia lags far behind countries such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and England, but the International Rugby Board sees plenty of potential.
“The Asian Five Nations will be the flagship tournament for Asia,” said Egan.
“In addition to providing competition for each union, it will serve to provide the platform as an ongoing development tool for players, officials and administrators with a goal to provide a pathway for entry into competitions such as the World Cup.”
Rugby has a loyal following in Hong Kong and they will be confident of derailing any hopes the Gulf (with its captain Diarmund O'Malley pictured above) have of winning their match in the UAE. But injuries to Semi Iafeta and Colin Bisley, Hong Kong’s captain and vice-captain respectively, have hampered preparations with both men ruled out of the opening two games.
“This is a big blow,” said coach John Walters. “It is a shame that we are missing both our leaders on the field.”
He added though that his team had been training hard since losing to Tunisia 29-9 earlier this month and were ready for the Gulf challenge.
“We have gone for a bit more bulk this weekend given the profile of the Gulf team,” he said. “The team has worked hard since our return from Tunisia and are looking forward to performing well in the Gulf.”
Gulf selectors Steve Holohan and Wayne Marsters have been preparing for the past three months and will hand several players their first caps. They include Muscat captain Karl Sutcliffe, an Irish-born forward, and lock Steve Huber, an Australian who plays for Dubai Hurricanes. (AFP)