PLAYOFF FOR FIRST DIVISION  (Date: June 1st )
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On yet another rainy Sunday the Tokyo Gaijin gathered at a new rugby venue for a playoff game against Rokko East RFC with the winner gaining the right to play in the Tokyo Cup 1st Division in 2009. The pitch at Komaba University was of the Astroturf variety but it made a pleasant change to running around in the mud, as it seemed we had done throughout the Tokyo Cup campaign. If the game had been played at the regular venue of Kizoochi Field it would have been an absolute mud bath and I doubt very much that 44 points would have been scored.

To backtrack a little, the TGRFC had finished second in the Tokyo Cup 1st Division (after losing the final 26 v 22) and their opposition on this day, Rokko East RFC, had finished second last in the 1st Division. Both teams were to fight out for a spot in the 1st Division in 2009.

Jesse Takahashi, who had been doing all the managerial work and attending the Tokyo Cup Committee meetings, wasn’t fussed about which way the result went as being a participant in the top level just meant more work for him next year and a lot more scrutiny for the team. Player availability was also causing concern as in 1st division the team couldn’t afford to have so many players out but that was the situation facing the TGRFC on this day with a plethora of players out, due to work & family commitments and injuries.

The match started with a the kickoff taken by Joffa Harris and it was on right from the first ruck. The Rokko players came flying in and rucked aggressively. The Gaijin responded in kind and the steady boot of Matt Downer put the Gaijin into Rokko territory. The first Gaijin lineout was well competed by Rokko East but Murray Clarke was able to win the ball. An early bomb from Matt Downer was fumbled by the Rokko East fullback, which put the Gaijin on the front foot, but they were soon defending in their own half through a combination of penalties and kicks. The gaijin were almost first to put points on the board through yet another clever kick through from Downer but the ball bounced back awkwardly on the chasing Joe Fisher and Murray Clarke and Clarke knocked it on with the try line begging.

Rokko Scrum
Unfortunately, when it came to scrum time the Gaijin scrum was very shaky. The Rokko front row was very powerful and had the Gaijin scrum on skates for the entire first half. Their tight head prop was a man-mountain and may well be the biggest prop this writer has played against in Japan. Gaijin prop Joe Fisher backed up this comment later, saying, “ He was one of the biggest props I have ever played against. He was not necessarily the best I’ve played against, but he was, by and large, too good for Garrett and I “. And that’s saying something as Fisher has played for many years in New Zealand against some big Maori and Islander boys.

The lack of ability to win their own scrums was to be the Gaijin`s downfall in the first half as the pressure forced them to defend for long periods on their own line. The aggressive, never-give-up attitude of their forwards rebuffed many concerted mauling and rucking attacks but after concentrating the attack in the forwards their opposition swung the ball wide and their big winger crashed over in the corner with Ken Kondo hanging around his legs. The conversion was unsuccessful but the score line was now 5v0 in favor of the Rokko East Club.

The Gaijin knew that they had to play a smarter game to outwit their bigger foes and great work by the forward pack and clever kicking by fly half Matt Downer constantly had the Rokko Club back-pedaling. TGRFC loose forwards Kevin Rebay and Dave Kelver were often first forwards to the ruck causing the Rokko Club to give away numerous penalties for ‘not releasing’ and ‘going over the top’. This enabled the Gaijin to register their first points when Downer converted his first penalty attempt of the match, leaving the score at Rokko East 5 TGRFC 3.

Soon after though, with the weight of possession against the Gaijin due to their inability to win their set pieces, Rokko Club were in again after more aggressive mauling sucking the Gaijin forwards in and quick passing allowing one of their outside backs the space to score. The conversion was successful this time and Rokko skipped out to a 12v3 lead.

Once again Downer’s kicking was to bring the Gaijin back into the reckoning with another successful penalty conversion following yet another rucking violation by the opposition, leaving the score at 12v6.
Soon after Kevin Rebay’s dogged persistence paid dividends when he pressured the Rokko halfback to pass in heavy traffic and happily accepted an intercept pass near halfway. Despite a concerted chase by the Rokko center and fullback he managed to stay ahead and win the race for the try line to get a well-deserved try – his first for the Gaijin. Downer converted to put the Gaijin in front for the first time in the match at 13v12.
Rokko East weren’t having any of this and came back with a vengeance with their big forwards to the fore once again. They scored just before halftime and were able to convert to make the halftime score 19v13 in their favor.

This was a fair reflection of the play in the first half. Though well and truly outplayed in the set pieces, the Gaijin had showed that it ‘wasn’t the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog’. The rucks and mauls were a real dogfight with the Gaijin loose forward trio slightly outplaying their opponents. The New Zealand front row connection of Joe Fisher and Chris Fearon got through a mountain of work and had some storming runs up field. Captain Murray Clarke had kept a lid on things as some over-vigorous rucking (a rarity these days but we are all thankful to the referee for allowing it to pass) threatened to cause a boil over.
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At halftime an interesting substitution was made for the TGRFC. Chris Fearon had battled through the first half with a recurring shoulder injury but the pain had become too much. Garrett Washington was switched from inside center to loose-head prop. Now that is not a move you don’t see very often! Takayuki Kitajima switched from tight head to hooker and Joe Fisher switched to tight head. This immediately paid dividends as the Gaijin scrum was now on par with their opposition with the extra weight – in fact they even went on to win one clear scrum on their opposition’s feed and pushed them back a few times.

Tucker McEwen moved from wing to centre to take Washington’s place and Andy Ballard came onto the wing.
The Gaijin started the second half knowing that they had to leave everything on the field. It was a battle of attrition and Rokko East RFC seemed to be the side tiring the most. With the added oomph in the Gaijin scrum they could finally get some front-foot ball. This was negated to a certain fashion though by the up-in-your-face defense of the Rokko backline. Their open side flanker also seemed to be getting a healthy head start (pointed out later by those on the sideline but missed by the ref!), which was putting a lot of pressure on Downer at standoff.

Erin Hughes was replaced 15 minutes into the second half by Arthur Strang. In Erin`s first start for the Club he scrummed well, was solid in general play, and never put a foot wrong. His boisterous enthusiasm had also injected something extra into the effort.

The Gaijin were deep inside the Rokko half midway through the second period after some strong rucking and looked to be gaining the ascendancy only to be penalized for a high tackle. A penalty was given and the kick for touch was a low trajectory screamer that was dropped by the usually reliable Alaister Nimmo and hence the heat was taken off the Rokko Club.

The second half involved a lot of kicking as the sides tired and fought for territory with Downer getting the better of the kicking duel. One such kick was strongly persued by Tucker McEwen and Ken Kondo with Kondo picking up the scraps and racing away to score midway between posts and sideline. Downer, in an immaculate kicking display, converted to put the Gaijin out in front by a single point with about 6 minutes to play. Score : 20v 19 to TGRFC.

kick offNow, all the Gaijin had to do was play smart, hold possession and not do anything fancy. Easier said than done! The final act of the game was played out as a busy 5 minutes in the Gaijin half. The Gaijin were giving their all to hold onto their slim lead while the Rokko East players were hitting rucks and mauls with a renewed vigor and intensity. The Rokko East blind side winger made a break but Andy Ballard managed to put him into touch with a strong tackle. The ball was lost from the lineout however and Rokko East was back on the attack. The ticking of the clock was reaching a crescendo for supporters and players alike as time ticked away.

Apisai Bati came up with a great play when he made a strong tackle and was able to rip the ball from his opponent. Unforunately, the ball popped out the side of the ensuing ruck. A Rokko player on the ground reaped the ball back and his forwards charged in to support him, to give their backs one last fling of the dice. The ball was thrown wide and carried forward with pace. The big winger, who had started the scoring, charged for the corner while  Ballard made a valiant attempt to tackle him (again). At first there was some confusion as it looked like he had been tackled into touch but the linesman’s flag stayed down and the referee awarded the try. The Gaijin gathered on their line devastated, for they knew that there were only seconds left. For the second game running they had let a game slip from their grasp in the last few minutes.

The Gaijin had battled hard but at the end of the day the Rokko Club deserved their win. Their tries were well worked whereas the Gaijin had to rely on scraps throughout the first half. There was a big improvement in the second half as the big Rokko forwards tired but it was all too late by then. The wise Arthur Strang later said, “The final try was more or less created from the fact that after scoring what had seemed to be the winning points, there was a sense of ‘relief’ rather than a sense of ‘urgent must control’ and play the game out”. He went on, “At the final phase leading up to their final try, there were very few of us up with the play due to the earlier mistaken ‘euphoria’ and additionally by the referee’s decision to not stop play for an infringement in their play. Also he had incorrectly given them an additional 10 metres when he thought that we were back-chatting/abusing him”.

The Gaijin scrums and lineouts were shaky all game. As mentioned before, the oppositions scrum was colossal and the Rokko Team`s obvious strength. The TGRFC`s own lineouts, generally a strong point, were shaky all game with poor throwing, lifting and cleanups. Fearon’s lineout throwing was a bit off target, or overthrown, which made it difficult for the usually solid Clarke to take his ball. In Fearon’s defense he is not the regular team lineout thrower with both preferred options on the unavailable list. Even though the opposition kicker was hitting his kickoffs beautifully the Gaijin kick-off reception was very good all day, largely due to Clarke’s good catching.

Dave Kelver tackled well all game and Kevin Rebay played hard on defense and attack earning him the Man of the Match award. Joe Fisher was his usual solid self in the rucks and mauls all day and was ably supported by Takayuki Kitajima. The forwards didn’t make a lot of ground but managed to suck in a lot of defenders and the ball security has improved greatly of late, perhaps due to the efforts of the coaching staff in focusing on this.

It was not a great day for the backs as they hardly got the ball and when they did they had to contend with in-your-face defense. Yoichi Ohira had a good all-round game at fullback. Apisai Bati ran aggressively and made a couple of half-breaks (that usually ended with a Fijian 7`s style pass that his team-mates had no idea about!!) Alaister Nimmo had another fantastic game at halfback and continues to play well above his weight and be near the top of the tackle count. Tucker McEwen had some good runs but was always kept in check by the swarming cover defense.

Some final words of wisdom from Arthur Strang, “when in the lead it would be better to know how to turn the screw…close the game down…rather than leave the other team a scent of victory”. All I know is that Jesse Takahashi is probably not too disappointed that we lost. Less hoops to jump through next year in the enigma called the Tokyo Cup.

As usual, a big thank you to all the helpers that were present on the day: Blake Walker, Lucie Ballard, Hiroko Fisher, Vico Martinez, Ashley, Lonnie Chlidress, Joe Vandell, & Mrs Nimmo.

Post match: The boys recovered from their disappointment soon enough to drink well into the night and send off 2 guys that have given their all for the Tokyo Gaijin: Tucker McEwen & Garrett Washington. Good luck back in the States boys. You are welcome to pull on a Tokyo Gaijin shirt any time.

Rumours circulating later had Mr ballard placing his block and tackle in Gaz`s ear. Gaz, obviously feeling very blue about the day’s events, had drunk himself into a hazy stupor; fallen asleep, then put a techni-colour carpet on the floor of the Clubhouse. It was also rumoured that Lonnie Childress had blown his entire life-savings by betting on a Gaijin victory with a Mafia (Yakuza?) bookie. In the following week there were numerous nervous e-mails from Lonster the Monster (also known as GG) asking teammates about bank transfers.  

SCORE: Rokko East RFC 24 (4 tries, 2 conversions) v TGRFC 20 (K.Kondo 1, K. Rebay 1, M. Downer 2 conversions, 2/3 penalty goals)

MAN OF THE MATCH: Kevin Rebay

GOAT OF MATCH: Garrett Washington & Tucker McEwen (Not for their play during the match but for leaving us to head back to the USA)

TEAM:
1.Takayuki Kitajima (Japan)
2.Chris Fearon (New Zealand)
3.Joe Fisher (New Zealand)
4.Murray Clarke © (New Zealand)
5.Erin Hughes (USA)
6.Kevin Rebay (France)
7.Dave Kelver (USA)
8.Joffa Harris (Australia)
9.Alaister Nimmo (England)
10.Matt Downer (New Zealand)
11.Tucker McEwen (USA)
12.Garrett Washington (USA)
13.Apisai Bati (Fiji)
14. Ken Kondo (Japan)
15.Yoichi Ohira (Japan)
16.So Nagashima (Japan)
17.Arthur Strang (England)
18.Gaz Dalrymple (Scotland)
19.Andy Ballard (England)
20.Buck Kozlowski (USA)