New head coach helps steer one of the lowest-ranked teams in the world to Division 1 of the Asia Rugby Championship.
The resumption of the Asia Rugby Championship has been a long time in coming because of COVID-19 but the recent Division 2 play-off final doubleheader between Thailand and Pakistan was well worth the wait.
After two pulsating ties, just one point separated the sides with Pakistan, under their new head coach Gert Mulder, ultimately celebrating victory, 39-38 on aggregate.
Pakistan lost the first game 20-15 after leading for the majority of the match despite having one player red-carded and another two sent to the sin-bin.
And they trailed Thailand for 65 minutes of the second game before completing a stunning comeback victory, by 24 points to 18.
“It is something massive, and I am happy to have been a part of that. It is one of the best experiences of my life, especially because nobody was giving us a chance and we had a really, really short time to prepare with just three weekend-long camps,” Mulder said.
“What the players achieved in those three weeks was outstanding. We didn’t think they would get the concepts so quickly but they bought into what we wanted them to do straight away. It was awesome and it was all due to great leadership on the field.
“Thailand were by far the favourites. They have got a very good sevens programme and their skill level was much better than ours,” added Mulder.
“We knew that and we worked very hard on getting our skill levels up and focused more on the set-pieces because Pakistan’s players are a little bit bigger. We didn’t lose one lineout and won all our scrums and took a few balls off theirs.
“In the first match, we had yellow cards and a red card. It was bad discipline why we lost the first match. We should have won that one as well but we won the one we needed to win.
“We missed out on a few try-scoring opportunities in the first half and they put us under immense pressure, running the ball, but we’d prepared knowing how they were going to play and they failed to score a try against us in the second match which we were very pleased about.
“It is awesome for them that they are going into Division 1. It is the first time ever Pakistan have beaten Thailand. In the previous match, they lost by nearly 50 points (44-0).”
Mulder, the Vice President of Blues Bulls Rugby Union in South Africa, was made aware of the opportunity to coach Pakistan by Springbok legend, Naas Botha.
“He’s running rugby in India, and I know him very well and he phoned me one day and said, ‘do you want to go and coach in Pakistan?’ I said, ‘are you crazy, do they even play rugby there?’. Then I said, ‘let’s see how it pans out’,” he explained.
“They asked for my CV and I was on a shortlist of eight coaches and they interviewed three and they offered it to me so I took it for the experience.
“I’ve been coaching rugby for 35 years now, from schoolboy level to club and provincial level and it’s totally different.
“In South Africa, you start playing rugby at six years old, here it is much later.
“Although they have been playing rugby for 20 years, they only have four clubs and they all play a one-dimensional type of game.
“Cricket is so huge there, they need to grow the game. Luckily these matches were broadcast by television so that helps a lot in the marketing of rugby as a sport.”
Pakistan’s victory not only caused ripples of interest in a cricket-mad country but also led to a shake-up of the World Rugby Men’s Rankings, with a move of five places up the table to 92nd.
“They are super-committed and hard working. If they get more opportunities to play and more exposure, they will go further up the rankings.”