Ecstatic scenes were witnessed at the Punjab Stadium in Lahore on 1st June, 2022, as the final whistle finally blew and the Pakistan national rugby team walked off, many of them carried off on compatriots’ shoulders actually, Asia Rugby Division II Champions after an unbelievable 24 – 18 victory against Thailand in the concluding match of Championship final.
Having come from behind to steal the first match 20 – 15 in the dying seconds, with the two-test contest being decided on points aggregated across both matches, Thailand needed only to lose this second match by less than 5 points to secure the Championship. They almost pulled it off again, that too well after the designated 80 minutes, in what appeared to be injury time.
Thailand’s star player, fly-half Thanapong Punpang—who scored all 18 of his team’s points from penalty conversions on the day, with 6 out of 7 attempts successful at that stage,including a monstrous boot from the halfway mark—was gifted yet another easy opportunity by Pakistan, courtesy being penalised once again for needless indiscipline, in the 85th minute.
Sadly for Thailand and the outstanding fly-half, he missed one of the easiest kicks on offer all day. Had providence not stepped in as it appears to have done, had Punpang converted this last penalty kick, the score would have ended up 24 – 21; the home team would then have won the second match but lost the Championship to the visitors on aggregate by 2 points.
As it turned out, to the delight of the home team and boisterous crowd in attendance, Pakistan won both the match and the Division II Championship, the latter by a solitary point. A fair reflection of how unbelievably closely contested it all was. Lest one be fooled, this was no fluke though; there is no question Pakistan earned and deserved the victory.
Defensively, the unforgivable multitude of unforced errors, ball-handling blunders, etc., aside: Pakistan was simply outstanding. The team did not concede even a single try in the final match! Shutting out a far more disciplined Thailand team, including a forwards pack boasting an electric live wire of a Number 8, Sarut Janda—whose try won them the first match, and who was also exceptional in the second—and a backs line with significant speed and a superior skill-set, was no mean feat.
In terms of offence, Pakistan’s forwards comprehensively dominated their counterparts in both matches: in scrums particularly, but also line outs and open play; their rolling mauls proved particularly threatening, and downright deadly more than once. Well led by team Captain Hammad Safdar, all eight came together as a truly formidable unit: so, it might be unfair to single out individuals herein. It would perhaps be even more unfair, however, to leave out honourable mentions of Number 8 Ali Shahid, and Locks Ali Khan and Saad Arif, who had outstanding games.
That there is talent, skill and speed in Pakistan’s backs line: of that there is little doubt. Nor, though, can there be any doubt that they need to be better drilled and, even more so, desperately need to reduce or preferably eliminate ball handling errors drastically. Nevertheless, in both games, full-back Omair Khan played superbly; in attack and defence he stood out as the backbone of the team’s backs; veteran winger Khalid Bhatti proved himself an outstanding force and finisher once again in the first match (unfortunately out with an injury in the second); and, young scrum-half Daud Gill had stellar outings and continues to show great promise.
In both offence and defence and beyond, though, this Pakistan team demonstrated how much heart and spirit matters most of all in rugby. That they suffered a heartbreaking last-second defeat in the first match, were 5 points behind on aggregate, were down 9 points by half-time in this match, down 12 – zip shortly thereafter well into the second half, and had registered a big fat zilch on the scoreboard up to the 49th minute: and yet, emerged victorious yet. This is the epic stuff of myths and legends that this team may very well be made of.
After the phenomenally hard fought and incredibly well contested, nail-biting thriller of a first Test between hosts Pakistan and guests Thailand three days earlier had been decided in the dying seconds with Thailand clinching a 20 – 15 victory out of the proverbial jaws of defeat with a brilliant try at the very death: it would be fair to contend that only an insane person could have put their money on the second and final match of the Asia Rugby Division II Championship being as, let alone even more, thrilling a contest, one that would go on to be decided pretty much post-death.
But, Pakistan being Pakistan… as Asia Rugby’s Development Consultant, Benjamin van Rooyen so aptly put it post-match: “If you had asked me to write a story, a thriller, up to the last minute, I could not have done it as well as Pakistan did.”