Newly-promoted Sri Lanka was left ruing a disallowed try as they fought to a pulsating 13-13 draw against the United Arab Emirates on their debut in the HSBC Asian Five Nations Top Five competition.
A 4,000-strong partisan crowd at a waterlogged Ceylonese Rugby Football Club in Colombo groaned in disbelief after the local touch judge ruled that substitute winger Lasitha Costa hadn’t legitimately grounded the ball minutes before full-time.
In Almaty, Hong Kong came away with a superb 23-10 victory over Kazakhstan who was reduced to 13 men midway through the second half after red cards were handed to two forwards for foul play.
First-half tries to skipper Tom McColl and scrumhalf Peter McKee allowed Hong Kong to ease to a 20-3 lead at halftime. Fly-half Keith Robertson kicked over 13 points.
The stakes were high in Colombo with both the UAE and Sri Lanka targeting a win to ensure they stayed in the Top Five next year. It ended in a stalemate, but not before the televised game had seen plenty of drama.
A scoreless first half was a prelude to all-out action in the next 40 minutes as the lead swung hands. Sri Lanka took an 8-0 lead with winger Nuwan Hettiarachchi knocking over a penalty and a try from tighthead prop Eranda Swarnatillaka.
It started with a lovely break by scrumhalf Roshan Weeraratne, when from a lineout deep inside his own 22, he caught the entire UAE defence napping when he took the direct route, through the pack, and made 50 metres before passing to Swarnatillaka to score.
UAE came back strongly with tries from tighthead prop Dan Boatwright and left winger Steve Smith and a Jonathon Grady penalty gave them a 13-8 lead. But the home team hit back through Hettiarachchi who covered 50 metres to complete a rare backline move.
The touchline conversion was missed by fullback Saliya Kumara, resulting in the scores being level at 13-all and the tension mounting. Nerves cost Sri Lanka as both Hettiarachchi and Kumara missed easy penalties late in the match that would have sealed the win.
But the home side seemed to have won the game when Costa slid over for what he thought was a match-winning try, only for it to be disallowed by referee Tobi Lothian after consulting with the touch judge who said he had knocked on.
“The result was very disappointing. We created enough opportunities to win and it should have really come down to goal kicking,” said Sri Lanka coach Ellis Meachen, who coached Tonga at the last Rugby World Cup.
“All in all we played enough good rugby to win the game. UAE played well in close quarters but didn’t offer anything in the backs. I have been here for four months but this is the first time I woke up and it has rained. We haven’t trained in the rain and the boys did very well in alien conditions. Sri Lanka should be proud of them,” Meachen said.
About the disallowed try, Meachen said: “I saw the replay, it looked okay, but it wasn’t. The referee has the final say.”
UAE coach Bruce Birtwistle had mixed feelings. “I guess we were lucky to come away with a draw,” he said, but added: “This result will make life difficult for both teams.”
Saturday’s results leave Hong Kong on top of the HSBC A5N table on five points, while Sri Lanka and UAE are level on three points.
Hong Kong will take on Japan next Saturday at Hong Kong Football Club while Kazakhstan travel to Abu Dhabi to face the UAE on Friday evening at Zayed Sports City in what will be a crucial opportunity for last year’s HSBC Asian 5 Nations runners-up to get points on the series board.