Japan on the edge of reaching World cup

A pumped-up Japan goes into its final game of the Asian Five Nations on Saturday against Hong Kong knowing it needs just one more point to qualify for the 2011 rugby World Cup.

Japan leads the race for the automatic Asian World Cup slot with three wins for 18 points, ahead of Hong Kong on 12 points.

A win or draw at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium here on Saturday will be enough to see them join hosts New Zealand, France, Tonga and Canada in Pool A of the rugby showpiece next year.

Even if Japan lose, they will still qualify for their seventh straight World Cup by scoring four tries, or by losing by less than seven points.

Victory will also hand them their third straight Asian Five Nations title.

“The rugby World Cup is the pinnacle of the sport and certainly the ambition of our squad is to qualify for the 2011 tournament in New Zealand,” said Japan coach John Kirwan.

“It hasn’t been hard motivating the team. They really understand the importance of winning and want to go to the World Cup. They will be very motivated,” he added.

The All Blacks legend, who scored 67 tries for New Zealand, has produced what he calls “a Japanese style game played at pace with good support and decision making”.

Kirwan helped Japan put an end to a 13-match losing streat at the 2007 World Cup with a draw against Canada. But they still only boast one win, one draw and 18 defeats from their previous six tournaments.

He has made three changes from the side that started last week’s 101-7 thumping of Kazakhstan.

Ryu Koliniasi Holani is back at No.8 after an injury filled 18 months, Alisi Tupuailei is on the wing and Shinsuke Nakamura starts at tighthead prop.

“No player thinks that we’ve already qualified for the World Cup. We want to represent Asia by beating Hong Kong,” added stand-in skipper Hitoshi Ono.

Usual captain Takashi Kikutani received a two-game penalty for a stamping incident and use of the elbow in their match against the Gulf two weeks ago.

Japan is the only Asian country to have played in the World Cup, but the Asian Five Nations runner-up has a chance to rewrite the history books.

Whoever finishes second enters a play-off phase starting with a clash against Uruguay in July, with the winner then facing a home-and-away contest against a side from either Europe or Africa.

Hong Kong coach Dai Rees is determined to give Japan a run for their money.

“We’ve got to go and get something out of Japan. It’s still in our own hands. Bonus points, win, draw or whatever, so we haven’t got to worry about what’s going on in Korea,” he said.

Kazakhstan, still reeling from their humiliating defeat to Japan last weekend for a 1-2 win-loss record, also have their World Cup dreams alive.

They have seven points and play South Korea in Incheon, also on Saturday. South Korea have one point from three defeats and the Gulf 10 points from a 2-2 record.

Kazakhstan skipper Timur Mashurov said a bonus point win against South Korea could be enough to finish second, matching last year’s achievement.

“We’ll do our best,” he said.

The Asian Five Nations rugby tournament table ahead of Saturday’s final games (played, won, lost, drawn, points for, points against, bonus points, total points):
Japan 3 3 0 0 232 25 3 18
Hong Kong 3 2 1 0 60 39 2 12
Gulf 4 2 2 0 70 131 0 10
Kazakhstan 3 1 2 0 65 148 2 7
South Korea 3 0 3 0 40 124 1 1

Note: The winner qualifies directly for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. The runner-up goes into a play-off with Uruguay, the winner of which enters a home-and-away contest against a side from either Europe or Africa.

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