By John Birch.
Kazakhstan, who face Hong Kong this Wednesday in a bid to qualify for the Women's Rugby World Cup, are the giants of Asian women's rugby.
They start the qualifying tournament as overwhelming favourities which is no surprise as they have never lost a game against any of their regional rivals at 15 aside level.
And that is the interesting sub-plot of this years Asian World Cup Qualifier because it is only just over a year ago that Kazakhstan were involved in another World Cup Qualifier as equally overwhelming favourites when they played in the World Cup Sevens qualifying games.
They strolled through the opening games of that World Cup Sevens qualifier, not conceding a point in their group games which was unsurprising as it was a big occasion for any Asian side to so much as score against the Kazakhs. Their semi-final saw them drawn against Japan strong opposition, but the Kazakhs had never failed to score at least three tries again them, and Japan had only ever scored one.
Fifteen minutes later Japan had doubled their all-time total and Kazakhstan had failed to add to theirs at all. Kazakhstan 0, Japan 5 - as a sensation, it made Wales beating England last year seem almost mundane.
It is something of an understatement to suggest that maybe Kazakhstan have something to prove this weekend.
But it is even more important than that.
Historically Kazakhstans strength goes well beyond Asia. They have played and beaten some of the worlds leading rugby nations, including Wales, Ireland and Italy indeed they have never lost against the Irish or Italians, and have beaten Wales on three out of five games.
This is at least partly due to their starting life as a European team until 2002 the Kazakhs were members of FIRA and took part in several European championships. However, when FIRA became Europes regional confederation the Kazakhs found themselves moved to Asia and a rugby wilderness. Not the richest of Unions, and located at the extreme west of Asia, the Kazakhs were unable to develop regular fixtures with the rest of Asia even missing the 2006 Asian championship because they could not afford to travel. A nation that had played 30 internationals in eight years against the best in the world now had no regular opposition at all. For three years they played no-one, and in the seven years since 2002 they have played only 11 games seven of which have been in World Cup qualifiers or finals.
So, as well as having something to prove on the field, qualification for the World Cup is vital to the continued development of the game in the country. Failure to reach the finals of the Sevens World Cup was a blow to the game, failure to win in Singapore (pictured) will be a disaster.
In practice it is difficult to see past a Kazakh victory. Hong Kong should be no barrier to a place in the final, and neither Singapore nor Japan should be strong enough to prevent the Kazakhs coming to London next year. But the Kazakhs have had no preparation, and have played anyone since beating Japan 39-3 in the Asian championship 16 months ago so nothing can be taken for granted.
First international: 1993
World Cup Finals: 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006 (best finish: 9th (1994 and 1998))
- All games (1991-2009): P 41, W24, L 17
- Last 10 internationals: P 10, W 6, L 4
- Since last World Cup: P 4, W 4
- v Hong Kong: No previous meeting
- v Japan: P 3, W 3
- v Singapore: No previous meeting
Hong Kong factfile:
First international: 1998
World Cup Finals: Never qualified
- All games (1998-2009): P 12, W 4, D 1, L 7
- Last 10 internationals: P 10, W 4, D 1, L 4
- Since last World Cup: P 7, W 4, D 1, L 2
- v Japan: P 3, W 3v Kazakhstan No previous meeting
- v Singapore: P4, W 3, D 1