The successful 2008 Tokyo Cup campaign started with a shock loss to Fuji Club but was followed by a couple of resounding wins from which the team was able to sneak into the Semi's and ultimately promotion into the First Division. It was hoped by all that the 2009 campaign's miserable start (loss to Musashino) was just a blip on the radar, with better things to come in the second match of the tournament against Kurumi RFC. And that is pretty much what transpired on a hot sunny day in Misato, Saitama. Well, sort of.
VC Matthew Downer led the team out and it was a fairly confident crew that took the field. Matt had won the toss and elected to play into the wind, meaning potential territorial advantage in the second half. Kurumi started the game by shifting possession to their backs quickly and on several occasions the center pairing of Tsumugi (Aki) Akiba and Bati Apisai were able to stop the ball getting wider. Hitoshi Chihara on the right wing also showed his experience by shutting down the fullback who came into the line with his winger in space.
Our forwards looked to have the upper hand in the scrums, with a strong front row of Chris Lucas, Chris Feron and Takayuki Kitajima; while the line out was also looking good with Toby Gallagher being lifted well by locks Will Thompson and Sean O'Donaghue. Some accurate early throwing from Mr. Feron helped Toby secure some good ball - we also had Al Nimmo jumping on a few occasions, to provide Toby with some relief. From the backs the new tactic of running the ball back in toward forward support seemed to be helping our ball retention as well, so from the sideline, there was a quiet confidence.
As the early stage of the game played out, it was clear that the Gaijin were certainly equal to the task of Kurumi but were found wanting on a few occasions by not committing to tackles. It was in fact a couple of missed tackles that allowed our opponents to chalk up the first points of the match. Missed tackles led to great field position and a possible miscommunication led to an overlap was found out in the right hand corner where Bati was alone covering two men. We were down by 5 points early on but it was fair to say that this try was hardly a major dent in our confidence - we looked well in the game and were looking for the forwards to find a bit more "zing" in their defense.
Kurumi were unfortunately able to pull off another try not long after the first. On this ocassion, one of our line out throws went so wide and deep that none of our forwards were aware of how to react, though a couple of Kurumi lads had no problem with what to do as they charged through the line for their speedy blindside flanker to snatch the perfect bounce and charge off through our last defensive line for a "surprise" try. Screams and shouts of WTF? OMG! and a few other less pleasant words were heard but it was some calming words from Mssrs Downer and Thompson that had the boys back at half way ready to get our own points on the board, now down by 12 points.
Half way through the first half we were suddenly down by 17 points, despite our ability to compete at the set peice and the rucks. Kurumi were simply getting through our tackles with nice passing and quick feet. Again their blindside got around his man (a certain Basque national) who was just a step behind the pace (thanks possibly to his intensive fitness regime of pre-match smokes but more likely the taping and supporter that was holding his knee from falling apart). This Kurumi flanker had wheels as it is not easy to wrong foot and go past Paulo Berriozabal (who otherwise had a storming game, leading the tackle count for the team). By now some cracks were showing on the morale front but our lads were determined to get back in the game.
And that they did. The last 10 minutes of the first half required a strong finish to stay in this match and Matt Downer kicked the team into the Kurumi half, from where we attacked from mid-field. Eventually we were in the Kurumi 22 and it was a series of pick and goes by forwards and Bati Apisai, with some excellent rucking and mauling that had us on the line. Despite an overlap out wide for Aki and Yoichi Ohira, the ball was taken in for a final assault from which it was Takayuki Kitajima who crashed over the line to score our first points of the day. A hard fought try and one that gave us high hopes leading into the break, down 5-17.
The second half saw a hugely motivated Gaijin team making good in-roads with the wind behind them. Early domination had us feeling confident and looking for opportunities. It was a deep kick fielded on our 10 meter line by Yoichi Ohira that gave such an attacking chance. Quick decision making by Yo saw him run at the line and weight a beautiful chip over the rushing defenders and though the bounce eluded him it came nicely into the hands of the chasing Hitoshi Chihara who drew his man and offloaded to Matt Downer who went in to score a massively satisfying "opportunistic" try. 12-17 and the game was starting to come our way.
Or so we thought. From the side lines it really looked as if the Gaijin were going to continue their domination and get themselves back into the match, however such hopes were quickly dashed by a running succession of tries that came mainly from the work of the super quick and nimble Kurumi winger and their blindside once again. The Gaijin allowed Kurumi to take the match and were suddenly down by over 30 points.
During this period it must be said that the team never gave up. There was clearly a difference in fitness between the two teams though and Kurumi kept us in our own half despite the breeze. Andy Ballard had been under fire from pacy wingers and the Kurumi fullback all afternoon and was doing well to cope with the constant attack on his lilne, while the ever reliable Yoichi Ohira did very well containing the kicks that were coming his (and Andy's) way.
Paulo Berriozabal continued his run of form and was sent to the sin bin for a high tackle but with his return the team rallied with the objective of scoring the last points of the game - and saving some face. During his absence the Gaijin were constantly under pressure with some great work done by Toby Gallagher to help clear the lines and also Jeffrey Takahashi who got us out of trouble with a nicely read intercept. Chris Feron had been a key participant in the rucks and mauls and helped us to get upfield and away from danger on several occasions. He played strongly all day - despite the one serious line out blip.
Following a positional kick into the Kurumi half, the forwards charged the ball up with some great pick and go work from the likes of Rob Poulton (who was still drunk from his session the night before but somehow played one of his best matches in years), Sean O'Donaghue (good to have him back from injury) and Will Thompson (who I thought had one of his best games in recent memory, playing a great support game for his team mates).
Taka Kitajima, Tomo Togo (highly enthusiastic and brought a lot of energy) and Toby Gallagher also featured regularly in the action as the forwards attacked to the right of the posts looking for the elusive try. Dave Kelver had now come on to assist Toby with winning the line out ball; relieving Al Nimmo so he could play his more familiar role of half back; and South African utility back Rory Brown was adding a lot at the breakdowns.
The rucks moved across field to the left and it was Al Nimmo who relayed the ball through Hitoshi Chihara for Captain Matt Downer to dot down in the corner. Though the match continued, our last objective had been achieved. The game was over with a disapponting scoreline of 17-42 but it must be said that the fitness level in particular of the Kurumi squad was a key factor on such a hot dusty afternoon.
Thanks must go to all the helpers and team mates who assisted from the side lines. It was a good day out and the post-match beverages were had in good spirits. On to training and the next match!
Final Score: TGRFC 17 (Takayuki Kitajima, Hitoshi Chihara, Matthew Downer tries); Kurumi RFC 42
Man of Match: Chris Feron
Goat of Match: Joffa Harris (for gifting a couple of tries to Kurumi)
The Gaijin 22 was:
1. Chris Lucas (Australia)
2. Chris Feron (New Zealand)
3. Takayuki Kitajima (Japan)
4. Will Thompson (Australia)
5. Sean O'Donaghue (Ireland)
6. Joffa Harris (Australia)
7. Toby Gallagher (Ireland)
8. Paulo Berriozabal (Basque)
9. Al Nimmo (England)
10. Matthew Downer (New Zealand)
11. Hitoshi Chihara (Japan)
12. Bati Apisai (Fiji)
13. Tsumugi Akiba (Japan)
14. Andy Ballard (England)
15. Yoichi Ohira (Japan)
16. Robert Paulton (England)
17. Gazza Dimrymple (Scotland)
18. Tomo Togo (Japan)
19. David Kelver (United States)
20. Yusuke Kobayashi (Japan)
21. Jeffrey Takahashi (United States)
22. Rory Brown (South Africa)
As few more, less than professional looking pics. Starting with a lesson in tackling technique - crude but effective...
... running through the gap...
and the epitome of a professional athlete...