Regional rugby rivalry reaches its annual flashpoint when Cambodia, Brunei and Laos hook up this week for the prestigious HSBC Asian 5 Nations Division V matches at the Old Stadium.
The stakes in this three-match series, opening with the Cambodia-Brunei clash at 3pm today, are all about territorial supremacy and a year’s supply of bragging rights.
Each one of the three familiar foes have something to prove, which makes every encounter through the week vitally significant.
Brunei face off against Laos on Thursday. but the divisional centre-piece of the continent’s most coveted 15s competition will undoubtedly be Cambodia’s run-in on Saturday with their northerly neighbours Laos.
Cambodia and Laos are fiercely competitive when they lock horns, and this year’s tussle is no different.
But before setting their sights on the weekend showdown, the Koupreys – named after Cambodia’s native wild, forest-dwelling oxen – have a tough first hurdle to cross.
The Bruneians are back in contention after a year’s break, which the rugby management in Darussalam sought to spend on developmental work, but retain their strength and sense of purpose.
A pleasant aside to this build-up is the news that the Brunei Rugby Union has been inducted as a fully fledged member of the Brunei Darussalam National Olympic Council.
Cambodia lost to Brunei in a needle finish when they met two years ago. The Koupreys are bent on turning that outcome around this time.
This optimistic sentiment comes from none other than Cambodia's head coach Richard Flanagan, who has managed in the past two years to build the team’s muscle and shore up its winning attitude.
Flanagan, tough taskmaster that he is, believes that greater exposure to rugby has resulted in a steady growth of skills.
“We have more quality players to choose from than, say, a year or two ago. Skill levels are definitely up,” he told the Post in an exclusive chat during a training session yesterday.
The composition of the Cambodian team, according to the head coach, has a balanced look, with four new faces being capped in a 24-player squad that has five seasoned expatriates.
“I expect the expats to provide that much-needed leadership on the pitch, and I am confident the freshers will blend well with the rest,” Flanagan said.
But he is well aware of the known chinks in Cambodia’s armour that cost them dearly when the home side were nosed out of the contest by Laos twice last year, the margins being barely a point or two.
“Penalties killed us then. The players have realised that, and we are working hard to ensure discipline on the pitch and avoid giving away these penalties. They cost us points, territory and possession, and all the good work comes to nothing.”
Flanagan, a staunch advocate of the maul, tackle and grind variety, and hopes the structural changes he has introduced will help the side prevail over Laos, who he calls Cambodia’s bogey team.
“The hunger to win is always there. We have been giving away too much leeway, and we have often found ourselves short at the finish, although full of running. We have realised this, and we are determined to stay solid and that will be our main tactic,” Flanagan said.
First-choice fly half Morrison Mong is an exciting new prospect for the home team.
Mong, raised in Australia, where his family currently resides, is a versatile player who could make some productive transitions. Among the expats, Australian Dan Wetherall holds a key role, with Matt Wilkinson of Wales acting as a prop and Frenchman Julien Roumy starting as a lock.
New Zealand’s Luke Wilkie is the side’s scrum half, and Australian Toby Eastoe mans the front row.
Laos get into this event on the back of the national team’s good performance in the HSBC Sevens in Thailand, where they took the Bowl trophy earlier this year.
Several members of that squad are making this trip.
Experienced foreigners have been the mainstay for Laos, forming its spine, but native talent is noticeably on the rise. The successful launch of the Champa Ban youth project is having a positive impact on rugby development, and activities and the operating budget in Laos have nearly doubled, indicating that the country is experiencing rapid growth.
The smaller the field, the greater the uncertainty, and the three contestants could well throw up some high-intensity rugby to keep the competition lively.
To contact the reporter on this story: H S Manjunath at email@example.com