Japan eye Asian Five Nations Glory

Japan have the inaugural Asian Five Nations rugby title all but in their grasp — only Hong Kong now stand in their way — after another thumping win over an outclassed Kazakhstan.

Saturday’s 82-6 victory included 12 tries, while South Korea beat a dogged Arabian Gulf side 43-20 in Doha in the weekend’s other game.

It means Japan, Asia’s top-rated rugby nation, will clinch the trophy in next weekend’s penultimate round if they beat Hong Kong at home.

A week after demolishing the Arabian Gulf 114-6, Japan used their superior fitness, lines of running and confidence to score tries from all over the park against Kazakhstan, who defended bravely but were always on the back foot.

“We were faced with some difficult issues this week,” admitted Japan coach John Kirwan in reference to his side having to play at 900 metres (2,900 feet) above sea level in Almaty.

“But the players really came through.” Still, they will be disappointed at several opportunities that went astray where more generous passing would have seen them score over 100 points.

Flanker Yoshitaka Nakayama agreed the altitude was a problem.

“We really came together in the week under difficult circumstances,” Nakayama said, “and hopefully we can go to Niigata next week and win the championship.”

Kazakhstan coach Valeriy Popov said they knew Japan would probably win but were disappointed to lose by so much. “What was encouraging was that we kept going and never gave up.”

Hong Kong, who have won their two opening games but have yet to play South Korea, fly to Niigata on May 18 knowing Japan already have one hand on the trophy.

However, they will be boosted by the expected return from injury of captain and number 8 Semi Iafeta as well as vice captain Colin Bisley, neither of whom has yet featured in the Five Nations.

Iafeta, who recovered quicker than expected from a torn hamstring, said he was looking forward to playing again.

“The team has adjusted well and hopefully all the mistakes have been tweaked away against the Gulf and Kazakhstan,” he told the South China Morning Post.

“Our game plan is to beat Japan. End of story.” Iafeta’s return gives coach John Walters something of a selection headache thanks to the form of Simon Leung, who has done well filling in at 8.

In Doha, the Koreans had a battle against a multinational side of amateurs who qualify for international rugby through residency in Gulf countries.

With just seven minutes left to play, the Gulf were only four points behind Korea, but the visitors’ superior fitness showed through in the dying stages, when they ran in three of their seven tries.

“After last week’s result in Japan, there were a lot of questions asked and we asked questions of ourselves,” Arabian Gulf coach Wayne Marsters said.

“We demonstrated that we do deserve to be in the top tier of the HSBC Asian Five Nations and that we can be competitive.” South Korea lost their first championship match against Japan and had a bye in last weekend’s second round of games.

Japan sit atop the table on 18 points from three matches with Hong Kong on 10 from two and South Korea on six from two. Kazakhstan have one point and the Arabian Gulf zero.

South Korea take on Kazakhstan next Saturday while Japan face Hong Kong at Niigata on Sunday.

This tournament is the pinnacle of four newly formed tiers of competition across 25 Asian rugby unions, and the last-placed team at the top tier will be relegated to the 2009 division one competition.

Sapa-AFP – Rugbyweek.com

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