AFTER being kept away from the big boys of Asian rugby for 20 years due to changes in the format, Malaysia finally gets to test itself against two of the stronger sides on the continent.
Malaysia played South Korea and Hong Kong several times since the country’s first participation in the second Asian Rugby Tournament in 1970 but that stopped in 1998 when the Asian Rugby Football Union, now referred to as Asia Rugby, introduced divisions to separate the giants from the minnows.
The opportunity to again play the teams Malaysia will host here over the next two weekends came when Malaysia won the division one title last year in Ipoh. But Japan, winner of the Top 3 title last year, will not be playing this year after already qualifying for next year’s World Cup it is hosting, which also leaves South Korea as the third team in the championship although it finished third last year in the top competition and would have been involved in a relegation-promotion playoff with Malaysia had the latter chosen this option.
With the gap between the big thee and the rest being so wide and deep, as attested by results in the Top Five competition previously, it is impossible to anticipate how Malaysia will perform beginning this Saturday against South Korea. Maybe the weather will help. That is if it continues to rain in the late afternoon, as has been the case for the last several days coupled with the kind of thunderstorms that may frighten a foreigner who’s dealing with it for the first time.
Even if the Malaysian team has had the benefit of a friendly against another national team, a team like Sri Lanka for example, it would still be difficult to gauge Malaysia’s preparedness going into these two games simply because of that yawning gap.
In 30 editions since 1969, Japan has won the title 25 times, whatever the format. South Korea was victorious on five occasions but its best years were in the 80s, particularly in the second half of the decade. It finished runner-up 15 times but the last of these was in 2013. Since four years ago Hong Kong has been Asia’s second best team but Japan remains as Asia’s only representative at the World Cup since the first in 1987.
For now South Korea’s best rugby days appear to be over but despite this, it’s worth taking a look at Malaysia’s record against the Koreans in their eight meetings from the 1974 tournament in Colombo to the last one in 1996 before the format was changed.
South Korea won all eight, with a 41-0 scoreline in the first but the worst defeats for Malaysia were recorded in 1988, 1992 and 1996, with the scores being 102-0, 135-3 and 112-5 respectively. In all the Koreans scored 601 points against 32!
But of course this is history. While South Korea has dropped to third in Asia, Malaysia moved up the ladder to finally become division one champion in 2016 by edging Sri Lanka through bonus points after both teams had two wins and one defeat each. However Malaysia had earlier opted not to be in the playoff with the third placed team in the top tournament.
The story though is simple: If Malaysia wants to be with the big names on a consistent level, this Saturday is the start of the real test, no ifs and buts.
This will be followed by the game against Hong Kong on May 5 and going by the former British colony’s results since 2014, this game could be much tougher from the one against South Korea.
Information at the HK Rugby Football Union website shows that again most of the 32 in the squad are white Europeans, amongst who are some born in Hong Kong. Most too have regular jobs away from the sport but some are listed under occupation as rugby players, which indicates a fulltime playing career.
Just like the statistics against South Korea, it hasn’t been that rosy either for Malaysia against Hong Kong. There were seven meetings from 1970 until 1996, all won by Hong Kong with the points 384-44.
The lowest margin was the 10-4 score in Singapore in 1982 while the heaviest defeat was the 103-5 scoreline inflicted in Taiwan in 1996.
The two home legs are the best opportunities for Malaysia to put up a decent fight because it would not get any easier in the return legs that will be played later in May during the fasting month.