In an exciting last match of the Asian 5 Nations Rugby tournament regional Southeast Asia series, Laos defeated Cambodia 8-3, scoring a drop goal and try in the last seven minutes
Photo by: JACOB CAWTHORNE
Laos flanker Sengchanpheng Ekasan (right, with ball) is tackled by Cambodian prop Chro Kim Seng during their international match Saturday in Savannakhet, Laos.
LAOS winger Sengsourivong Paukham intercepted a pass deflected off the hands of Cambodia centre Lach Sopheara and raced 65 metres for the game-winning try with less than five minutes left, lifting hosts Laos to a 8-3 victory Saturday night over the Cambodian Koupreys in a thrilling finale of the HSBC Asian 5 Nations Series Southeast Asia Regional Rugby Tournament at the Savannakhet National Stadium.
With the win, Laos, which beat Brunei 28-8 earlier in the week, clinched the tournament championship. Brunei finished at one win, one loss while Cambodia went home winless.
The loss was the fourth straight test match loss for the Koupreys, with the side having not won an international rugby match for nearly two years.
It was a heartbreaking defeat for the Koupreys, who had led the favoured Laotian team for the majority of the match, which featured strong defensive play by both teams. It was also the third interception score against the Koupreys in the tournament.
"We outplayed them, and our defence was just great tonight," said Kouprey skipper Pich Ratana. "But all that doesn't really matter. We lost and that's what hurts."
A relieved Laos coach Ian Melhuish said his team was fortunate to come out with a win. "We made a lot of mistakes tonight, and they [Cambodia] really defended us well. It was a hard-fought game, and it shows how closely matched these teams are. It's a great rivalry and I expect it to continue in the coming years."
The fired-up Koupreys, who were attempting to rebound from their disappointing 21-10 loss Wednesday to Brunei, came on strong from the opening kickoff, shutting down the Laos running attack with some spirited tackling.
Centre Vannak Vireak opened the scoring just four minutes in with a penalty goal from 25 metres out, giving Cambodia a 3-0 lead. The rest of the match turned into an epic defensive struggle, as both teams moved inside the opponent's 5-metre line several times, only to be rebuffed by stout defending.
Laos flyhalf and English expatriate Chris Mastaglio, who last year led the Laos team to impressive victories over Cambodia, was unable to get much of anything going in the backline, as the inspired Kouprey defenders applied constant pressure in both the loose play and set pieces.
"Our defending was awesome," said Kouprey coach Peter Maley. "Our effort was 100 percent better than what we did against Brunei. He [Mastaglio] was looking flustered out there."
But the Kouprey offensive play was another matter entirely, as their backs were again unable to muster a consistent running attack.
"We had better phase play than we did against Brunei," Maley said. "We often moved through five or more phases of the ball. But unfortunately, we just couldn't finish it to get the score."
Those missed scoring opportunities ultimately proved to be the Koupreys' undoing late in the match as they turned the ball over on a missed pass near the Laos 10-metre line with ten minutes left to play.
The Laotians quickly took advantage as they drove inside the Cambodia half. After the Laos forwards drove further with a maul for another five metres, Mastaglio took the ball and made good on a drop goal from 34 metres out, knotting the score at 3-3 in the 73rd minute.
Cambodia answered quickly, getting the ball back off a lineout and then driving to the Laos 35-metre line. Vannak Vireak took the ball off a ruck and found a gap, with Lach Sopheara at his side.
Then disaster struck.
Vannak Vireak quickly fired a pass to his left, intended for Lach Sopheara. The ball bounced off Lach Sopheara's left hand and popped into the air, giving Laos's Sengsourivong the opportunity for the crucial interception.
Sengsourivong's try made it 8-3 Laos, but it remained that way as the normally reliable Mastaglio was unable to convert.
Cambodia had one last chance in the closing moments in another drive to the Laos 5-metre line, but an errant pass turned the ball over, and Laos centre William Luangrath was able to clear with a kick into touch for the final whistle.
Kouprey flanker Chey Sophal, while disappointed, said his team showed a lot of heart. "We had a very bad game against Brunei, but we came back, didn't give up and played hard tonight. That is a big improvement from last year's team."
Maley again praised the play of his youngsters, particularly wings Nheb Rotha and Bros Sophorn.
"Rotha and Sophorn were fantastic tonight" observed Maley. "They ran hard, didn't drop any passes, didn't make any silly passes, and they didn't cave in under pressure. These guys are the future of this team."
Cambodia next plays Laos in a friendly at Phnom Penh's Old Stadium on May 23.