The Tokyo Gaijin had already been assured of winning the Shuto League courtesy of their 5 from 5 record when they turned up at Akigase Field to play the final game of the Shuto League on Sunday the 20th of January. It was a chance to give some of the less experienced players more game time but the team also wanted to start the New Year with a win and finish the Shuto League with 6 wins from 6 games. Koganei Green Tortoise, who were third in the League, were hoping to spoil the party and with the best forward pack in the competition were a good chance to do just that.
It didn’t take long for the Gaijin to assert their superiority in the back line, with a few last ditch tackles from Koganei saving tries. Matt Downer was particularly dangerous and was soon rewarded with what looked like being a certain try. He had cut through a few would-be tacklers and as he went to place the ball down over the line it came free. Downer claims it was knocked out of his hand by the tackler. Others thought it just came free.
The Gaijin spent the first 15 minutes camped in the Koganei half and put lots of pressure on the defense with some sweeping ball movements through the back line but an errant pass here and some good last-ditch defense there kept the score line even.
In another overlap Joffa Harris put in a deft kick over the rush defense towards the corner. Prop Rob Poulton, sea gulling out on the wing, was first to the ball on the bounce but he couldn’t manage to hold onto it and knocked on and another try went begging.
Koganei Green kept kicking the ball to try to counter the Gaijin pressure on their try-line. The early defensive pressure finally took its toll with the flying Riki Pitter gaining an intercept out wide about 35 metres out from the Koganei try line to race away and score under the posts. Matt Downer stepped up to take the kick but slipped over on contact and made a hash of it. Score 5 v 0 to the Gaijin.
Koganei finally broke out of their half with a string of penalties and with some fierce rucking made their way deep into Gaijin territory. They were pounding away at the Gaijin line and it was only some spirited last-ditch defense that forced a knock on and some breathing space for the Gaijin.
The Green Tortoise had found the weak link they were looking for. They obviously had the wood on the Gaijin pack. The Gaijin scrum was struggling to hold the best front row in the competition and producing sloppy ball at the back for scrum half Al Nimmo , which was putting a lot of pressure on the clearances of standoff Matt Downer. Substitute Yoichi Ohira had some colorful unsolicited commentary about the Gaijin scrum being stuck in reverse gear: “Look at all those big Gaijin; still need a Japanese boy to save their ass”. Perhaps he was referring to usual starting prop Takayuki Kitajima who was warming the bench.
The Gaijin had to dig deep for a period and were buoyed by a big hit by Murray Clarke on an opposition forward. Soon after Matt Downer and Chris Fearon tag-teamed for a big hit on an opposing winger; so all the Kiwis in the squad had chalked up their first big hits for the day. The Gaijin managed to work their way out of the danger zone courtesy of this good defensive work and a relieving penalty. A clean lineout saw a nice flat pass go out to center Apisai Bati, who bulldozed and then sliced his way through the defense and finally unloaded to Hitoshi Chihara to will his way over the try line under the posts. Downer converted to make the score 12 v 0 to the TGRFC.
Soon after Bati was off with a slight leg injury and Yoichi Ohira was brought on to replace him and show the forwards what a Japanese boy could do.
The score line remained unchanged until Halftime. The mood in the TGRFC camp was buoyant, as they had dominated the half. The Koganei backs had no answer to the stiff back line defense and more often than not had resorted to a variety of kicks. The two forward packs were fairly even, though the Gaijin scrum had struggled to hold their own. Matt Downer had been the star of the half with some scything runs and some monstrous tackles.
The Gaijin made quite a few changes at halftime to bring on as many of their reserve bench as they could. Was this to be a good move? You be the judge!
Koganei Green Tortoise came out breathing fire in the second half and began with some big tackles. The Gaijin seemed a bit stunned and were starting to look sluggish. Was it overconfidence? A sweeping backline move ended with the Koganei winger outflanking Lawrence Hii for a well-worked try. Some say Hii missed the tackle. Truth was he never got near him! They missed the conversion to leave the score 12 v 5 to the Gaijin.
Soon after, pacey replacement center Tucker McEwen was to increase the Gaijin lead with a try under the posts after fending off two defenders. Downer again missed the conversion leaving the score at 17 v 5 lead.
McEwen also figured prominently in the next try. Taking a very ordinary pass one handed behind his shoulders he showed good speed to work his way up field. When he ran out of space he passed it on to Ohira who then gave it onto Lonnie Childress. Childress looked home and hosed but was run down just short of the line. A penalty for a ruck infringement on the same play was quickly tapped by quick-thinking halfback Al Nimmo and dished out to No.8 Joffa Harris who dived over under the posts to score. Joffa turned 40 on the day so it was a nice birthday gift and something extra to be celebrated later on at The Clubhouse Sports Bar. Ohira took the conversion and was successful to take the Gaijin lead out to 24 v 5.
From the kickoff Joffa was at it again. Murray Clarke took the kickoff and gave Joffa a nice little handoff on the burst. He made his way up field before being tackled and setting up the next phase. The Gaijin once again seemed to be on a roll. With about three quarters of the match gone one could be excused for thinking that the Gaijin had the game wrapped up.
Then it all went inexplicably wrong!
The Koganei No.10 sliced through the gaijin back line, showed up Yoichi Ohira (Yes, the guy who said that the gaijin needed a Japanese boy to save their ass!) and proceeded to run 50 metres to score. Where was the fullback? Well Hitoshi Chihara was cooling himself in the sinbin after receiving the yellow card for a kicking infringement. Tempers had started to flare after repeated penalties against the Gaijin team for ruck infringements and Chihara was made the scapegoat. The conversion was missed but the score was now a little closer at 24 v 10.
Then with 10 minutes to go, a further lapse in concentration led to another try to Koganei in the far corner but once again the conversion was missed making the score 24 v 15.
The Koganei number 10 was up to his tricks again soon after, slicing through the defensive line yet again, but was stopped just short of the line. He was constantly sniping around the edge of the rucks and was proving hard to tackle. One wonders what he was doing in the first half as he had been completely shut down. Koganei`s concerted attack and superiority at the breakdown finally was rewarded. A strong maul from a lineout about 5 metres from the Gaijin line resulted in one of the hard-working Koganei forwards barging over. The conversion was missed leaving the score at a very close 24 v 20.
With just a few minutes on the clock Koganei had the wind in their sails and worked feverishly towards the Gaijin quarter line. The referee signaled for one last play as both teams lined up for a lineout on the Gaijin 22 metre line with Koganei to throw it in. The Gaijin almost managed to push the ensuing maul over the sideline but the Koganei forwards managed to scramble the ball back infield. The Gaijin were penalized for some ruck infringement. Most people believe that the quick tap was lost forward but the referee didn’t see it that way. In a good example of playing to the whistle, the Koganei player ran through some half-hearted defense to score the winning try of the game after the bell. Once again Koganei failed to convert but had won 25 v 24.
It was a game of two halves. The Gaijin had completely dominated the first half and Koganei had completely dominated the second. The referee was particularly severe on the Gaijin at the breakdown, especially in the second half. Some will claim he didn’t know what he was on about but I think the Gaijin had had a little too much Christmas Cheer and their fitness in the second half had fallen away which made them lazy in the ruck area.
The Gaijin backs in the first half were very solid, both defensively and in attack. Matt Downer and Apisai Bati made numerous breaks and Downer had pulled off some shuddering hits and was a deserving recipient of the Man of the Match award.
The forwards would have to be a bit disappointed in their efforts. Prop Rob Poulton complained all game about having no grip but he was wearing soccer boots (moulded soles) and was up against the best front row in the competition. You have to come prepared to play! Poulton was later awarded goat of the game for constantly being at fullback. Mauro Sauco was jointly given the award for a horrible kick. Sauco had recovered a ball that was kicked through. In his panic to get rid of it he launched a kick that lolly-popped straight up in the air and sideways. I’m sure the Koganei player who received it was delighted! Surprisingly Murray Clarke was out- jumped in the lineout. Whether it was a problem with the lifters, or the Koganei jumper was just superior is hard to tell as Clarke is rarely out jumped.
The Gaijin are notoriously bad starters but this game went against type. They had started really well and finished badly. All four Gaijin tries were scored under the posts so the kicking had let them down. But when you consider that Koganei didn’t convert a single try it is a hollow claim.
The Gaijin should be happy with their season as they still won the Shuto League but they know that they have a game on their hands next time they meet up with the Koganei Green Tortoise.
SCORE: Koganei Green Tortoise 25 (5 tries, 0 goals) v TGRFC 24 (R. Pitter 1, H. Chihara, T. McEwen 1, J. Harris 1 tries, M. Downer 1/3 conversions, Y. Ohira 1/1 conversion)
MAN OF THE MATCH: Matt Downer
GOAT OF THE MATCH: Rob Poulton / Mauro Sauco
Rob Poulton (England)
Toru Kanamori (Japan)
Chris Fearon (New Zealand)
Murray Clarke (New Zealand)
Erin Hughes (USA)
Garrett Washington (USA)
Dave Kelver (USA)
Joffa Harris (Australia)
Alaister Nimmo © (England)
Matt Downer (New Zealand)
Yoshihiro Sato (Japan)
Apisai Bati (Fiji)
Jo Iwasaki (Japan)
Riki Pitter (France)
Hitoshi Chihara (Japan)
Takayuki Kitajima (Japan)
Mauro Sauco (Argentina)
Will Thompson (Australia)
Gaz Dalrymple (Scotland)
Yoichi Ohira (Japan)
Tucker McEwen (USA)
Lonnie Chidress (USA)
Lawrence Hii (Australia)
Andy Ballard (England)