HK ring changes in bid to beat Kazakhstan again
If a week is a long time in politics, a year can be a lifetime in rugby as Hong Kong will realise as they run out to meet Kazakhstan in their final encounter in the 2012 HSBC Asian Five Nations Top Five competition at Mong Kok Stadium today.
When the sides met a year ago, Hong Kong's point-scorers were skipper Tom McColl and scrumhalf Peter McKee, with first-half tries, and fly-half Keith Robertson, who kicked over 13 points in the 23-10 win in Almaty. All three will be missing from the starting line-up today, which goes to show the limited shelf life of players.
Change is inevitable. Centre McColl is presently out of the game as he is studying for his pilot's licence with Cathay Pacific. Robertson, plagued by injuries this season, is once again a spectator. The only one who can hope to see some action, then, is McKee, who starts on the bench with youngster Cado Lee Ka-to getting the nod for the second successive game.
However, though the personnel may differ, Hong Kong would be happy with a repeat scoreline a year down the road. Last time they travelled all the way to the central Asian republic and returned with a creditable win. Playing at home - albeit at a venue which hasn't hosted a rugby international for 13 years - gives Hong Kong the advantage and captain Pale Tauti and his men will be eager to grasp it with both hands.
'We want to finish on a high note,' urged coach Dai Rees, who wants Hong Kong to play more like Japan: with pace. That will depend a great deal on the back-row trio of No. 8 Tauti, flankers Mark Goosen and Nick Hewson, and half-back Lee.
If this four can conjure up the adjective 'fantastic', Kazakhstan will be on a hiding to nothing.
Changes to their squad - 80 per cent of Kazakhstan's players are green and playing in their first A5N season - has resulted in them struggling at the bottom of the five-team group. They have lost all their three games so far to Japan, (87-0), UAE (46-31) and South Korea (87-17) and coach Alexandr Stalmakhovic is all but resigned to relegation. 'It is a concern. We have been in the Top Five all along [with Japan and Hong Kong] and if we go down it will be a big blow. But it also might be a blessing. If we drop out of the elite group, it could open the eyes of our people back home. The government might give us more support and resources so that we can grow our player base,' said Stalmakhovic.
Kazakhstan will field an unchanged starting line-up to the side which lost to Korea last week.
'We are under pressure. But hopefully if we can win enough ball, we will grow in confidence,' Stalmakhovic added .
A cornered Kazakhstan might be a danger. Hong Kong will have to take care.