Can anyone put the brakes on Japan's drive for a seventh Asian 5 Nations Top 5 championship?
The Asian Rugby Football Union (ARFU) today announced its men’s and women’s senior fifteen and seven-aside calendars for 2014 and confirmed a change in the format of its elite men’s fifteen-aside competition, the Asian 5 Nations, for 2015.
The Asian qualifiers for the Men’s IRB Rugby World Cup 2015 will take pride of place on this year’s calendar with the Top 5 competition again held in April and May. The Top 5 champions will earn an automatic spot as Asia 1 in a daunting Pool B with South Africa, Samoa, Scotland and Americas 2 at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
The runners-up in this year’s A5N will enter a two-stage repechage with the first match to be held between Uruguay and Asia 2 in August 2014. That match will be held in the home country of whichever qualifier enjoys the highest international ranking at the time. Should Asia’s runners-up proceed past the first stage a second repechage will be played on a home and away basis in September and October 2014.
Japan enjoys Asia’s highest ranking at 13th, with South Korea at 23rd and Hong Kong in 25th place. Uruguay are presently ranked 20th in the world.
ARFU President Trevor Gregory commented on the 2014 calendar saying:
“ARFU is excited at the prospect of another year of strong growth in Asian Rugby. The culmination of the four-year Rugby World Cup qualification cycle will add an additional layer of depth and excitement for the season ahead and I offer my best wishes to all participating teams for a successful season.”
Japan is again the heavy favourite to advance as Top 5 champions to their eighth consecutive Rugby World Cup. Japan has not lost a match in the Asian 5 Nations era and coach Eddie Jones’ side is well drilled and keen to continue that lofty tradition.
Jones has called upon Japan Rugby Top League Rookies of the Year Keita Inagaki and Kyosuke Horie among seven uncapped players named in an initial 40-man squad. Five overseas based players - Shota Horie, Fumiaki Tanaka, Male Sa'u, Harumichi Tatekawa and Takahashi Kikutani - were all named in the squad, as were veteran forwards Hitoshi Ono, Luke Thompson and Kensuke Hatakeyama, who have 170 caps between them.
Japan open their qualifier campaign away to the Philippines before hosting Sri Lanka in Nagoya and facing second seeds South Korea in Incheon. Japan will close its campaign with a match versus Hong Kong in the last game to be played at Tokyo's National Stadium before it is demolished and replaced by a new arena, which is being built for the 2020 Olympic Games but will make its debut at Rugby World Cup 2019, the first Rugby World Cup to be hosted in Asia.
Hong Kong will have a daunting task of collecting three important results in the opening weeks of the campaign as they host Philippines then travel to Colombo before facing off against South Korea in what has historically been a battle for the runners-up mantle in Asia. Hong Kong will be wary of the Koreans after losing in the final minutes on the last occasion the two teams played at the Football Club in 2012.
Hong Kong has included ten new caps in their 40-man training squad for the Asian 5 Nations. Hong Kong’s most recent test match action came last December when the hosts dispatched Belgium twice in a series of home friendlies to improve their world ranking to 25th.
The Philippines and Sri Lanka will be fighting hard to crack the top two for a chance at qualifying for Rugby World Cup 2015 with the Philippines Volcanoes given the tough task of hosting Japan and South Korea before closing out their campaign with a visit to Colombo.
Sri Lanka will be eyeing their home fixture against Hong Kong in what should be steamy conditions in Colombo on May 3rd as a key result to keep their Rugby World Cup dream alive.
This year’s Division I tournament will be contested by the United Arab Emirates, who dropped from last year’s Top 5, Kazakhstan (runners-up in Division I behind promoted Sri Lanka in 2013), Chinese Taipei and 2013 Division II winners Singapore.
In a change to the standard format, the tournament will be contested over two single match days with UAE hosting Singapore on April 23 and Kazakhstan facing Chinese Taipei in a neutral venue match that will be played at the Hong Kong Football Club as a precursor to the climactic Hong Kong v South Korea clash on May 10.
Both match winners will retain their position in Division I next season, joining the two bottom placed teams from this year’s Top 5, after ARFU announced that the elite end of the 2015 men’s fifteens competition would be restructured to feature a Top 3 competition played on a home and away basis.
The new structure for 2015 will feature the top three performing teams from this year’s Asian 5 Nations contesting a full home and away series while the two bottom placed teams from the 2014 Top 5 competition will retain spots as the first and second seed in the 2015 Division I competition, joined by the winners of this year’s Division I matches.
Following the completion of the Top 3 competition in 2015, the lowest placed team amongst the three will face a single-match play-off against the top performing team in Division I to determine spots in the Top 3 competition for 2016; retaining the promotion and relegation format that has marked ARFU’s elite men’s rugby tournament since 2008.
This year’s Division II tournament will be hosted in Qatar with the Asian 5 Nations returning to Doha for the first time since 2008. The matches will see Qatar, one of the fastest rising teams in Asian rugby, host Thailand, Malaysia and Iran at the Al Arabi Stadium, venue for the 2006 Asian Games Rugby Sevens competition.
In recognition of the increasing competitiveness of Asian rugby, last year’s Division III and Division IV teams have been re-structured into a Division III East and West competition for 2014.
Division III East will be held in Vientiane, Laos during the ARFU mid-year council meeting in May. Laos will host Guam, Indonesia and China. Division III West will be played in Lahore, Pakistan in the first time that the Asian 5 Nations has been played in Pakistan since its inception in 2008. Lebanon, India and Uzbekistan will all take part in the Division III West tournament in June.
With the combining of teams at Division III level, the teams from last year’s Division V competition (Brunei and Cambodia) have been elevated to Division IV, which will also feature Mongolia, marking its first A5N appearance since 2011. The three-way round robin will be held in Brunei, marking its debut as host of an Asian 5 Nations tournament.
The elite Asian Women’s 4 Nations (AW4N) championship also returns to the calendar this year, being held in Hong Kong. The AW4N features top ranked Asian women’s 15s team Kazakhstan, second ranked Japan, third-ranked Singapore and fourth ranked Hong Kong, playing in a full round robin tournament over eight days (May 18th to 24th).
“ARFU is excited to welcome the return of the Asian Women’s 4 Nations to the calendar. This intensive competition will provide an important boost for women’s rugby and the region’s hopes for qualifying additional teams for the Women’s Rugby World Cup,” said ARFU President Trevor Gregory.
The host unions and dates were also announced for the upcoming ARFU Asian Sevens Series which will be held from August to October, a window that encompasses the Asian Games Rugby Sevens competition in South Korea.
The tournament hosts have been confirmed as Hong Kong, Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur. Hong Kong and Shanghai will host both men’s and women’s competitions, while the Kuala Lumpur Sevens will host men’s teams only.
The three ranking events on this year’s Series will focus on the core teams competing with 11 men’s teams invited to join the hosts in each destination. Women’s participation will vary from eight to 12 teams in the two tournaments planned for 2014.
“ARFU anticipates further growth in the competitiveness of Asia’s men’s and women’s sevens teams with this year’s Sevens series providing a perfect build-up to one of the highlights of the year’s rugby calendar, the Asian Games Sevens competition this Autumn,” said Mr Gregory.