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HSBC Asian Five Nations Division to Kick Off in Dubai

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The HSBC Asian Five Nations Division I tournament gets underway today (8 April) at the new The Sevens grounds in Dubai, site of last month’s Rugby World Cup Sevens.

At stake in the Semi Finals / Finals tournament format is a spot in next year’s Top 5 competition and a chance to qualify as the sole direct Asian entrant to the Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand. The bottom placed finisher in this year’s Division I will be relegated to the Division II championship in 2010.

Today, the host Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union (AGRFU) will meet Thailand, the promoted winners of the 2008 Division II tournament, while Chinese Taipei battles it out with Sri Lanka in the other semi-final.

The winners of match 1 and 2 will play at 5.00pm while the third place play-off will be held at 3.00pm on Saturday, 11 April 2009.

The Arabian Gulf, under new coach Bruce Birtwistle, are the top ranked team in the Division I championship after being relegated from the elite HSBC Asian Five Nations Top 5 competition in 2008.

Birtwistle who was only appointed last month is keen to examine his new charges in action, “I’m a little nervous about our first performance, seeing how the guys come together. I’ll feel more comfortable after we have that first game under our belt.”

“There have been some changes to the training and structure of the team. We have developed a leadership group to support the captain, meaning the players have to take ownership of certain areas of the game. We’ve also had the opportunity to bring some younger players into the squad and have had five of the academy guys training with us, giving them some exposure to a higher level of rugby,” added Birtwistle.

No. 8 Dave Clark will captain the AGRFU XV in the upcoming matches and is well aware of the importance of the upcoming games: “These are must wins if we want to get on the World Cup Qualifying ladder. We've got one shot at it and winning will stand us in good stead ahead of the HSBC Asian 5 Nations Top 5 next year. The players have been training intensely up to and on the back of the recent World Cup Sevens, in which a number of our players were involved. The guys are fully aware that 15s is a different kettle of fish altogether and while we take a higher level of fitness into these two tests, we know we need to knuckle down and get very physical but play with a controlled structure.”

“Thailand, Chinese Taipei and Sri Lanka will be coming to Dubai for results and we are preparing accordingly. As a squad we're upbeat about our prospects but we're taking nothing for granted, as it will be a tough old experience,” said Clark.

These sentiments were echoed by Thailand coach Atapol Wongratana who is setting more realistic targets for the competition. “As the promoted Division II champions we are slated to meet the top team in the Division I - the Arabian Gulf. We will be giving up a lot of size but our players are used to that and we will have to place a premium on our fitness and technique and hope to use the conditions to our advantage as we are used to playing in hot weather.”

“Our main goal is to test ourselves against the top competition we can find and the Asian Five Nations is a great way to do this. We are proud to have won the Division II last year and will consider it a real result if we can secure our presence in the Division I competition next year by staying up,” said Wongratana.

Second and third seeds Sri Lanka and Chinese Taipei will not be satisfied to maintain the status quo this week in Dubai however. Chinese Taipei coach Jason Lin, back at the helm of the XVs side for the first time since the 1992 Asian Cup, is confident in the team he has brought to Dubai, particularly with the addition of prop Lin Wen Tseng who is in the Toyota set-up in Japan’s Top League. Lin was unavailable for the Division I championship last November in Tainan, Taipei (won by Singapore) due to his club commitments in Japan and will be an important addition for the team against the physical packs of Sri Lanka and the Arabian Gulf.

Chinese Taipei will also rely on the veteran leadership of winger Wang Kuo Feng, a mainstay of the national team squad at both VIIs and XVs, who is coming off a fine performance in the Hong Kong Sevens where Chinese Taipei was matched against Fiji, Samoa and Canada in a physically bruising pool. 11 of the 12-man squad for the Hong Kong Sevens are included in the Chinese Taipei set-up and Lin has only brought in one new cap for the tournament, U20s player Wang Yiu Sheung.

After handily beating Sri Lanka 35 – 23 in their last encounter in the Division I 2008, Chinese Taipei are the second seeds overall this week. Their co-favourites status has had an additional boost after Sri Lanka chopped and changed its side significantly in the past few weeks derailing what was a promising build-up after the Lankans appearance in the Hong Kong Sevens at the end of March.

With all teams progressing in their build-up to the Division I competition, a fantastic rugby ground in 7he Sevens stadium and Rugby World Cup 2011 dreams in sight, the table is set for some fantastic Asian rugby action in the days ahead.

As part of the development work undertaken by the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union and the legacy programmes inspired by the HSBC Asian Five Nations, an exhibition match between two of the local Emirati Rugby Clubs, Al Ahli Club and Dubai Club, will be held on Saturday, 11 April 2009.

The match will be a great platform to showcase the development of local rugby in the region and to give the players an experience of international competitions.

 “It will be very competitive,” said Ghaith Jalajel, AGRFU Rugby Development Officer, “especially after both teams’ recent successes in the Arabian 7’s Challenge Cup back in February.”

The HSBC Asian 5 Nations matches will kick off at 6.00pm and 8.00pm on Wednesday 8th April and 3.00pm and 5.30pm on Saturday 11th April. The exhibition match will take place on Saturday at 5.00pm. Entrance to the ground is free and spectators are encouraged to attend.

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