Five Nations elite status key to World Cup hopes
Hong Kong will need to remain in the elite division of the HSBC Asian Five Nations in 2010 if they want two bites at the cherry - winning a berth at the 2011 World Cup - according to Ross Mitchell, secretary general of the Asian Rugby Football Union.
Mitchell who declared the first year of the new tournament a resounding success - the elite division ended on Saturday - disclosed that the International Rugby Board (IRB) had changed its qualifying process for the next World Cup, giving lesser-ranked countries like Hong Kong a better chance of making it through.
'In the past, the second team in Asia always had to play against a team from Oceania which was normally Tonga, and this was always a tough ask. But in 2010, there won't be a one-on-one situation,' Mitchell said.
'Instead, there will be a play-off where a team from Asia, Africa, Europe and South America will figure in a round-robin competition for one berth at the World Cup,' he added.
The 2010 HSBC Asian Five Nations will be used as the Asian qualifiers for the World Cup in New Zealand. The winner - most likely to be Japan who won this inaugural year - will automatically earn a berth.
The second-placed team in the competition will enter the play-offs against teams from the other continents.
'The Asian Rugby Football Union wrote to the IRB asking for a change in the qualifying process for the next World Cup. We didn't want the usual repechage system to continue where Asia's number two team always came up against tough opposition from Oceania,' Mitchell said. 'The IRB wrote back saying they will now have a play-off, and this I believe will give a team like Hong Kong a more realistic chance of qualifying.' The news will be welcomed by Hong Kong, who finished third in the competition after losing 50-24 to South Korea on Saturday. Japan, who won all their four matches, were the inaugural champions.
'This tournament has been a resounding success in its first year. We couldn't ask for more,' Mitchell said. 'All the unions have embraced the idea and I know the players are happy for they have more games and they know what to expect looking ahead.'
The IRB gave US$500,000 for the tournament - not only the elite division, but across the board embracing all 25 teams in Asia - with sponsors HSBC pumping in more.
'All the teams also know what they need to do if they want to qualify for the World Cup. Japan has set the benchmark. Hopefully, the other teams can close the gap next year,' Mitchell added.
As for Hong Kong, the equation is simple - to remain in the elite division in 2010.