The 2018 champions will face the Cook Islands in a home-and-away play-off on 30 June and 7 July with the winner on aggregate joining Canada in the four-team global repechage tournament that will provide the 20th and final qualifier for RWC 2019 in November.
Japan, the perennial Asia Rugby Championship winners, are not taking part this year having already confirmed their place at RWC 2019 by finishing in the top three of their pool at England 2015.
Hong Kong and Korea are therefore joined by Malaysia, who beat Sri Lanka 22-9 in the Asia Rugby Championship Division I title decider last May (pictured) to take their place in the Top 3 elite tier for 2018.
That victory helped lift Malaysia into the top 50 in the World Rugby Rankings and they have been preparing for this tournament since last October with head coach Lee Nyuk Fah leaving no stone unturned.
“Our programme has consisted of S&C, analysis, data, psychology and nutrition,” explained Fah.
“We also spent 16 days on an overseas tour in New Zealand, including coaching clinics from local experts and the likes of North Harbour’s Tom Coventry and former All Blacks Rodney So’oialo and Filo Tiatia.”
Malaysia begin their campaign with two matches at home, against Korea on Saturday and Hong Kong the following weekend, at the 87,5000 capacity Bukit Jalil National Stadium in Kuala Lumpur which was built for the 1998 Commonwealth Games.
With his side ranked 16 and 21 places below their opponents respectively in the rankings, Fah acknowledges what it would mean to secure qualification for rugby’s biggest stage.
“We need to stay motivated, hard-working and physically and mentally prepare well,” added Fah.
“Our players need to have pride to represent our country for this World Cup qualifier. It would be the proudest and most historical moment for us. It would be a dream come true for sure.”
A sentiment echoed by his captain Mohd Syahir Asraf Bin Rosli: “We all know that Korea and Hong Kong have been playing in the top division for so long, and are very experienced sides. We will need to focus and place a priority on our technical, physical and mental set ups as best we can. We will give our all during this campaign against two very good sides.
“I am so grateful and really happy to be competing. I couldn’t even imagine getting the opportunity to compete in the premier division and I know every rugby fan in Malaysia must be so excited to see our team getting there and to play against the best teams in Asia.”
The prospect of two Asian teams involved in a Rugby World Cup for the first time remains a possibility, but even if that doesn’t happen, the region will still see the benefits of Asia’s first Rugby World Cup.
“Rugby is growing fast now with proper systematic structured professional leagues lead by Japan, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, China in sevens and many others,” said Fah.
“To host the Rugby World Cup in Asia is an honour and a proud moment for Asia. The impact is a growing number of players and fans across the Asian countries and subsequently an increase and spread the influence and awareness of beautiful rugby in Asia.”