The Tokyo Gaijin started the day at Ichikawa fields in typical fashion. Half the team was late. Though for a change, this was not in any way due to drinks the night before, late morning pillow talk or anything to be blamed on the players: it was because all of Tokyo was being battered and blown by some of the fiercest winds seen this side of Typhoon season. The majority of surface trains were suffering from stoppages as carriages ran the risk of coming off rails. Dan Salter and Lawrence Hii didn’t even make it to the ground as they were stuck on trains for over one hour. The Fijian connection of Semi Leiene and Saki Ratu turned up 5 minutes before kickoff.
The team slowly assembled with a brief “warm” up jog which involved a brisk glide downwind and a difficult struggle upwind back to the gear, toward the mountain of top soil (a pile of construction dirt that was about ten feet high, double that wide, and as long as the field and between the field and the direction in which the gale was blowing) that was eroding before our eyes, in fact eroding into our eyes, as the wind whipped up the sand and lashed us with it all afternoon. We were missing a prop as Rob Poulton was stuck in some Chiba station and coming by taxi, though Garrett Washington moved from open side flank to tight head for the sake of the team.
The opposition was a solid crew. Winners of the Edogawa League, the Blackeyes had solid forwards and fit looking backs. As Captain Al Nimmo pointed out, it was not going to be a day for skills and quality. The game would involve a little luck and the “winds” of fate, no pun intended. The Gaijin kicked off with Yoichi Ohira playing at first-five. A deep kick that blew toward the touchline, the Blackeyes smashed it up with their forwards and immediately the heat was on. The Gaijin forward pack was found wanting on a few occasions as the Blackeyes committed more numerically and more emotionally at the breakdowns, often driving the gaijin off their own ball. Quickly though, the Gaijin forwards raised their game and with a series of penalties awarded for hands in the rucks, the Gaijin went into Blackeyes territory. The game was indeed scrappy and the Gaijin scrum was dominant through the early stages, with props Mauro Sauco and Garrett Washington flanking Toru Kanamori at hooker, backed up by Erin Hughes and Sean O’Donoghue in the second row. Unfortunately the lineout was shaky with the wind blasting the throws off course. Almost all lineouts from both sides were reduced to throwing to the first man at prop. Kicking for touch was also proving difficult as the wind swung it back. One such kick from Joffa Harris almost came backwards, as did a kick by the Blackeyes.
The Gaijin struggled to find ascendency in the first half as the Blackeyes managed to pin us into our 22 for much of the period. Strong defence by (again) Garrett, Hitoshi Chihara, Sou Nagashima, Mauro Sauco and Joffa Harris kept the Blackeyes at bay until mid way through the half, they drove over through one of their larger props, who featured in all close contact play and was in the authors view, their best player by far. With no conversion, the Gaijin were down by 5 at the half, though it was clear that the game was winnable as the Gaijin were starting to win in the loose and set pieces. Standout players at this stage of the game were undoubtedly Sou Nagashima and Hitoshi Chihara, who both tackled hard and worked tirelessly to secure the ball. Garrett Washington also was playing to his usual high standards.
With Garrett back to openside and Rob Poulton in the front row, the scrum continued its dominance for much of the match. With Murray Clarke heading to the sidelines early in the second half, Sean O’Donnaghue led the lineouts and did well. Toru Kanamori has also started finding his mark despite the challenging conditions. It was a forward’s battle for most of the second half and Joffa Harris managed to bust his way through the defence to score from a penalty tap after a series of attacks by the Gaijin pack. The try was not converted and the game was set up for a tough final quarter.
Handling errors due to the conditions were prevalent from both teams and neither was able to dominate the final passages of play. From the sidelines it began to look as if the game would crawl to a draw, as the Gaijin would burst through the Blackeye`s line with the ball changing hands only to be dropped at the final phase. Some great work by Mauro Sauco, who battled well all day and Sean O’Donoghue, who also played hard and had some trademark runs, saw the Gaijin closing in on the Blackeye 22, only for yet another knock on. This time, as he did several times through the second half, the Blackeye right wing came in from close and cut a wide angle through the Gaijin lines. Again the ball was taken perilously close to the Gaijin lines but a knock on saw it back to the Gaijin once more.
Some good defence by Niall Conlon, Jo Iwasaki and Tucker McEwen held the Blackeye backs well. Yoshihiro Sato also made a great tackle. Alistair Nimmo played well also making some huge tackles throughout the match. Unfortunately the Gaijin backs were unable to get good ball and though Bati Apisai and Tucker McEwen made some telling runs, the Gaijin were generally well contained. The same could be said of the Blackeyes as they rarely managed to hold the ball and capitalize on their chances.
Thus the game was see-sawing in this manner until with 5 minutes to go the Gaijin had a penalty chance to send the ball from their 22, wind assisted, deep into enemy territory. Yoichi Ohira was instructed to boot the ball as far downfield as he could. Unfortunately the wind over- cooked it and the ball bounced went all the way through to the dead ball line. This was to be the turning point of the match as the ball had to come all the way back to the Gaijin 22, Blackeye`s ball. Ohira, who had played a fair game in incredibly tough conditions, felt the weight of that error as the Blackeyes began to pound the Gaijin line. With the team defending well, the Blackeyes were held out time and time again. The pressure mounted and the Gaijin infringed with hands and an offside. Several more penalties came until finally the Blackeye’s had the chance they needed. The prop, who had featured so much in the tight play early in the game, tapped and charged at the line. He stayed front on and his entire pack drove in behind him to get him over for the winning try. Amazingly with the swirling gusts the Blackeye five-eighth converted. Score 12 v 5 to the Blackeyes. This was to be the final result as the referee blew the full time whistle one play after the kickoff. The Gaijin were out of the Champions League.
Both sides had a tough day at the office. The Gaijin backs played hard but it was a day for forward rugby. It’s been a while since I have seen so much dropped ball but the conditions were hardly conducive to good rugby. In better conditions this would be a great contest as the Blackeyes look to be a solid and well-balanced side and the Gaijin could have got more from their pacey Fijian outside backs but as it was the ball virtually never got out that far. (Editor`s note: In all honesty the game should have been cancelled. They were the worse conditions I’ve ever played in. The referee could barely see what was going on. I had grit coming out of my nose & ears for a couple of days!!)
Thanks to the supporters who were crazy enough to come and help out on such a miserable day. Shino, Kyoko especially, but also to Blake Walker who is always there to help when needed. An apology to Gazza who deserved game time but unfortunately did not get the chance until the final moments of the match.
NOTE: No Man of Match, or Goat, given as too hard to see who was outstanding.
SCORE: Blackeyes 12 v TGRFC 5 (J.Harris 1 try)
1.Garrett Washington (USA)
2.Toru Kanamori (Japan)
3.Mauro Sauco (Argentina)
4.Erin Hughes (USA)
5.Sean O`Donoghue (Ireland)
6.So Nagashima (Japan)
7. Murray Clarke (New Zealand)
8.Joffa Harris (Australia)
9.Alaister Nimmo © (Japan)
10. Yoichi Ohira (Japan)
11. Hitoshi Chihara (Japan)
12. Niall Conlon (England)
13. Apisai Bati (Fiji)
14. Yoshihiro Sato (Japan)
15. Tucker McEwen (USA)
16. Rob Poulton (England)
17. Arthur Strang (England)
18. Gaz Dalrymple (Scotland)
19. Semi Leiene (Fiji)
20. Saki Ratu (Fiji)