Kazakhs target World Cup berth
When Kazakhstan fullback Maxim Lifontov scored over a late penalty to give his team a surprise 30-27 victory over South Korea to seal second place in the HSBC Asian Five Nations last year, it helped raise the profile of rugby union in his country.
Now there are hopes the momentum will be maintained, if not enhanced, as Kazakhstan eye the coveted spot in the World Cup in New Zealand next year.
'Our performance last year has helped bring in some new fans and we want to capitalise on this with another good season,' head coach Valeriy Popov said.
'Any time a team reaches the world championship of any sport in Kazakhstan, the profile is raised much higher than before.
'Our aim is to win our first clash against the Arabian Gulf and take it from there. We will make our ambitions from match to match. I do not want to look too far ahead,' he said
While Hong Kong host Korea this weekend, Arabian Gulf travel to Almaty to face Kazakhstan, who lost only to Japan last season.
Kazakhstan will feature many of their well-known faces including Lifontov, No8 Timur Mashurov, who has recovered from a knee injury, towering flanker Anton Rudoy and forward Ildar Abdrazakov.
'The squad will be almost the same as last year. We will try to introduce a couple of young guys, but the core of the team will stay together as this is a very important year and we don't want to experiment too much,' Popov said. 'Our goal is to repeat second place and have a chance to reach the Rugby World Cup.'
Kazakhstan will face an Arabian Gulf team who have 11 new caps in the squad. The winners of the Division One tournament last year realise they face a tough assignment in Almaty, but remain confident they will be competitive in their return to the elite level.
'Defence will be the key,' Gulf coach Bruce Birtwistle said. 'Our key players will be up front. It will be important to meet teams head on in the set pieces and breakdown.'
This is the last time they play under the Gulf flag as from next season they will split into the various entities that make up the Gulf.