Hong Kong face hard slog in Kazakhstan
A gruelling 13-hour journey to Almaty was just the beginning of the hard slog that awaits Hong Kong in their opening encounter in the HSBC Asian Five Nations Top Five competition today.
New captain and outside centre Tom McColl knows they can expect no favours from Kazakhstan, who will be determined to make the trip back to Hong Kong even more painful for the visitors.
'It was a long trip but we came a day earlier to get acclimatised and everyone is raring to go,' said McColl (pictured). 'Playing Kazakhstan on their home patch is one of the biggest challenges we will face this season.
'They are physical and have a lot of size but with the depth we have gathered in Hong Kong over the past six months, really starting from the European tour, I think we can match them man for man in terms of our size and our talent levels,' he said.
McColl is one of seven players who will be taking part in the Asian Five nations for the first time. The others are forwards Pale Tauti (No8), Brent Taylor (hooker) and Ollie Jones (second-rower), Peter McKee (scrumhalf), Lee Jones (centre) and Ross Armour (fullback).
They were all part of last winter's European tour during which head coach Dai Rees tested his players under international conditions.
'We have been together as a group for basically six months and we are starting to gel,' McColl said. 'The combinations are coming together and everyone is getting along very well on and off the pitch. We have been looking forward to the A5N since touring Europe.'
Handed the captaincy after last year's skipper, Simon Leung Ho-yam, was ruled out through injury, McColl is excited at the opportunity.
'It's a great honour representing your country and having learned my rugby here in Hong Kong, first at Stanley Fort minis, and then at Kowloon, which is the club where my father played as well,' McColl (pictured) said. 'The A5N is getting bigger and bigger. The awareness has grown and players and teams are improving rapidly. It will be a huge challenge.'
Hong Kong's goal is to stay in the top three and, if possible, finish second only to Asian powerhouse Japan. To do that, they will have to beat Kazakhstan at home.
With four games against top Russian clubs under their belt, Kazakhstan will be a battle-hardened force.
Last year's runners-up have carefully mapped out their campaign to close the gap on Asian heavyweights Japan. Japan have represented Asia at every World Cup since the inaugural event in 1987 when they were invited by the International Rugby Board to carry the region's flag. Since then, they have rightfully won their place through a qualifying process.
Last year, Kazakhstan were mauled 101-7 in Japan, and also lost to Hong Kong (19-15). Skipper Timur Mashurov is determined to give Japan a harder time and make home advantage count against Hong Kong as they did two years ago, when they won 25-6.
'It's very difficult to close the gap on Japan as we are not a full-time professional set-up, but every time we play them is good experience and our aim is to narrow the gulf,' said Mashurov, an outstanding backrower.
'As for Hong Kong, they are a good competitive team, and the score in A5N is 2-1 to Hong Kong. They have a very good set-up, although they are also an amateur team, but we know they will be well-drilled.'
Kazakhstan spent the first half of this month in Turkey on a training camp during which they also played four games against Russian clubs Novokuznetsk and Penza.
'We were in camp for two weeks and it was a good opportunity to try to get more of the young players involved in the set-up and bring them along, We have continued training since we came back,' Mashurov said
By finishing second last year, Kazakhstan earned the right to go into a repechage against Uruguay in the qualifying process for booking the last berth at this year's World Cup. They failed in that quest.
'The players are really looking ahead to the next World Cup qualifying process. We want to play along the same four-year cycle as the major international teams with an eye on 2015,' Mashurov said.