A scrappy and error-strewn final match of the HSBC Asian 5 Nations Southeast Asia Regional Rugby Tournament ended in a 12-3 defeat for Cambodia against Laos at Phnom Penh’s Old Stadium Saturday. With the win, Laos clinched the Mekong Cup and retained the series, having crushed Brunei 23-5 earlier in the week.

The Laos team lined up at the start without talismanic number 10, Chris Mastaglio, who was out sick with food poisoning, and the game looked to be there for the taking for the Cambodian ‘Koupreys’.

The hosts dominated the game for large spells, but unfortunately poor hands by the backs and ill-discipline leading to several sin-bins and a sending off left them unable to break through against a well-marshalled Laos defence.

“We were really unlucky today,” Cambodian number 8 Chey Sophal said after the game. “We controlled the ball, but we just couldn’t score.”

A wet and windy Old Stadium was subjected to another downpour before kickoff that left large puddles around centre circle and both goal posts. Despite the weather, Cambodia began positively, and went ahead early with a fourth-minute penalty kick from captain Pich Ratana.

However, 10 minutes later the slick surface started to come into play. A clever chip by Pich Ratana was collected by flanker Pros Sophoan on the opponents’ 22-yard line, and he raced forward only to slip mere inches from the tryline on the sodden turf, allowing the Laos defence to recover. The error set the tone for the rest of the game, with a dominant Cambodian forward row let down time and again by their backs fumbling the wet ball.

“The conditions made it tough out there,” Cambodia’s tighthead prop Ralph McMillan noted. “We needed to move the ball wide – get it away from their forwards – but because of the slippery conditions the hands were slow today.”

As well as the substandard handling throughout, the kicking suffered from the blustery weather. In the first half, both Pich Ratana and the stand-in Laos flyhalf, Anousith Chaleunesouk, missed kickable penalties from central positions.

Hosts lose men to sin-bin The Koupreys’ frustration at their lack of a final pass contributed to ill-displine. Pich Ratana and hooker Uk Dara were sin-binned, leading to a brief spell of Laos pressure. Nevertheless, the local’s defence held firm till halftime maintaining the narrow three-point lead.

In the opening moments of the second half, Cambodia continued to dominate the forward row, particularly loosehead prop Seang Chro Kim. The same problems dogged the hosts as their back row continued to struggle with the ball, as Pich Ratana’s kick-and-run plays were consistently cut-out by the Laos fullback.

Ultimately, it was the home team’s lack of discipline that proved their undoing again. On the 55th minute, the Koupreys lost winger Khemarin Dul after his attempt to charge down a kick by the Laos fullback went horribly wrong and he was red-carded. With a man advantage, the visitors capitalised just two minutes later as a successful line out on the 22 led to center Mit Oudone Keohanam bursting through the over-stretched Cambodian left to score. A missed conversion by Anousith Chaleunesouk meant the lead remained at two points.

The Koupreys continued to batter against the Laos’ defence, but another missed penalty by Pich Ratana in the 62nd minute, and a last-gasp tackle by the Laos fullback on Cambodian flanker Vong Vannak with minutes to go, prevented the home team from regaining the lead. A breakaway try from Laos flanker Phouphet Phoutthavong in injury time was successfully converted, putting gloss on a game that was more even than the final score merited.

Laos coach praises Koupreys After being carried aloft by his victorious players after the game, a triumphant Laos coach Ian Melhuish acknowledged that Cambodia deserved more. “They Cambodia probably consider themselves unlucky. They threatened our line, and they probably should have come away with more points.”

“We played really well,” said a tearful Koupreys captain Pich Ratana, who by his own admission had a poor game and was clearly devastated by the loss. “I don’t know why we couldn’t score. We had chances, maybe if I hadn’t missed the penalties.”

Cambodia coach Richie Flanagan saw signs of progress during the game, but conceded that it was the same errors that had held the Koupreys back. “I thought it was a massive improvement from the Brunei match,” he expressed. “But it ended up coming down to that final pass and those final mistakes. And again our discipline was a major factor; two sin-bins and a red-card.”

Watching the game was former Scotland head coach Frank Hadden, who was coming to the end of his tour of Asian countries competing in the tournament, during which he had watched 24 matches and coached over 2,000 players and children. He praised the children’s rugby coaching in Cambodia as being “as good as any I’ve worked with in Asia.”

Hadden also explained what he thought was necessary for rugby in this region to progress: “The answer for me is more games. You need to learn game awareness and gain experience by playing. They’re so few teams to play against in some countries that they have to work very hard to find opposition. The key to progress is finding more teams to play, creating more opportunities to learn how to play the game.”

The rugby season in Cambodia now enters a rest period until the Angkor 10s international tournament which plays out in November.

By Daniel Pordes - The Phnom Penh Post - June 29, 2010