Dateline January 18, 2009. Time for the much awaited rematch between the Tokyo Gaijin and Yokohama Country and Athletic Club First XV. In the 2008 event the Gaijin felt robbed of two tries the local referee failed to award and went down in the final 5 minutes to a well worked YCAC try in what was a bruising contest. This year, after a strong 2008 Tokyo Cup and Shuto League, the Gaijin felt they had what it takes to pull out a win against their biggest rival. In December another foreigner-based club, Tokyo Crusaders, was humbled 12-44 against YCAC as their imported ex-Rugby League professional carved them up in the centers, so word was out that we could expect a mighty challenge defensively in containing a fast stepping runner. To win this expectedly tough match, the Gaijin forwards, smaller overall, had to step up and take on the big YCAC boys up front and play in-your-face rugby while using the full width of the park so the big YCAC bruisers would struggle to keep pace.
Right from the kick off the intensity of both teams was clear with some massive hits going in at tackle and ruck. YCAC gave the Gaijin a chance for a penalty early on (hands in ruck) and the Gaijin took the lead by 3. YCAC then rumbled up the field using their big forwards. They got the ball quickly to their Pro import who was certainly a flashy runner, making some telling breaks early in the match; however the center combination of Al Nimmo and Tsumugi Aki wisened to the YCAC back line and began to read play, defending strongly.
Matthew Downer also made some solid tackles in mid field to halt the opposition momentum. Up front the YCAC scrum was - as ever - dominant, stealing several of our balls through some good hooking; though as the game wore on the Gaijin scrum began to even things out. In the line outs it was a mixed affair with the big YCAC second rower claiming several of our throws early on but the Gaijin also upsetting their takes and gaining some turnover ball.
With their early dominance, YCAC Captain Joe Fisher elected for the scrum rather than kicking for goal and when the Gaijin infringed defending their line, it was a big YCAC scrum that drove and shunted the Gaijin backward for a push over try taking them to a 5-3 lead after around 15 minutes of play. Not long after they drove forward again through their forwards, drawing our defense and worked a nice try in an overlap out wide from 40 meters out. As the play unfolded however, some rather nasty unprovoked off-the-ball action took place.
Gaijin first-five Matthew Downer had made yet another solid tackle on the YCAC Pro import and received an immediate response from the ex-professional League rep by way of a flurry of punches to the face. While trying to defend himself - as most of his team mates were following the play - the big YCAC number 8 stepped in to throw a few more punches at the Gaijin Vice Captain who had clearly broken their concentration with his hard tackling.
It was a surprising lack of discipline shown by an ex-Professional who YCAC apparently recruited all the way from Australia - did they give him a job or do they pay him? - but was to be expected by the big Kiwi/Tongan #8 who had been trying to demonstrate his aggression all game with limited results thus far. Local touch judge Steve Lewis stepped in to award Mr. Downer a yellow card for his effort to defend himself but quite rightly also gave the two YCAC aggressors time to cool off. With no TMO, the try stuck and suddenly the Gaijin were down 3-12, with a one man advantage through the sin-binnings.
Despite being a man down, YCAC were able to push into Gaijin territory a few minutes after the restart where their hooker was penalized and shown another yellow card for flagrant stamping of a Gaijin forward. If this were a competition match surely citations would have been flowing as YCAC were clearly attempting to make up for lack of cohesion with violence that is simply not called for in this sport. (And I thought YCAC was an English gentlemen's club?)
Regaining possession once more and with a two man advantage, the Gaijin kicked into YCAC territory and let their mistakes hand the ball back. A penalty out wide allowed the Gaijin to employ their set play "Mozzie" and though the first phase was a patchy demonstration, the ball moved nicely stand in first-five Yoichi Ohira to Tsumugi Aki at center and he strolled easily through a gap to score. The play had worked perfectly as the defense focused on Kevin Rebay and Al Nimmo. The conversion unfortunately was muffed badly by Bati Apisai who slipped and twisted his ankle in the attempt, leaving the Gaijin behind by 8-12.
At the half, the Gaijin felt confident and few changes were made: Murray Clarke succumbed to his 'flu virus to retire early, giving newcomer Toby Gallagher his first match for the Tokyo Gaijin; Toru Kanamori made way for So Nagashima at hooker; and Rob Poulton came in to prop for Chris Lucas. The aim was to keep moving the ball wide to tire and frustrate the ill-disciplined YCAC forwards but to do that, the Gaijin had to maintain a reasonable amount of possession and our relatively quiet forward pack would need to step up for the final stages.
Again immediately from the reset it was an intense battle with neither team getting the upper hand. It was the Gaijin though who would dominate the half as loose forwards Paulo Berriozabal and Kevin Rebay began to tackle with gusto as well as drive the ball up to gain much required territory. Dave Kelver at blindside tackled and chased all day, while Hiroaki Kitajima (who had not played for us in 3 seasons) stepped up to make some strong runs with ball in hand. Big second rower Mauro Sauco looking fitter than ever kept up with play and was a key man in stablizing our scrum and lifting for our line outs through a bruising second half. Bati Apisai was also coming off his wing to make tackles and run the ball with overall good impact.
Matthew Downer stepped up his game as the half wore on, making some classy chips and bombs, pressuring the YCAC backline and allowing the Gaijin to gain ground. At last he worked us into a good field position and with another YCAC infringement, Downer was able to kick a long range penalty and bring the scores to 11-12. Soon after, the Gaijin worked their upfield again and from almost the same place another Downers penalty attempt dropped marginally short; bouncing backward to chasing South African Rory Brown who knocked it off his knee for Hiroaki Kitajima to pick up and dive over the line. The Gaijin were elated and all those players nearby thought we had just stolen the show. It was difficult to see and all happened very quickly, leading to a consultation by the match officials who voted two (the local touch judge and the referee) to one (Gaijin touch judge Joffa Harris) to call it a knock on from Rory's hand. Tough call and yet again, the Gaijin had points denied in a manner similar to a year earlier. Fair to say however, overall the referee was extremely non-partisan and did a great job in controlling a high tension match. Just on this occasion he deferred to the local touch judge and overruled our own linesman, disallowing the 5 points, right beside the posts.
With that, fresh feet were brought on in the form of Will Thompson for Mauro Sauco, Rob Poulton and Chris Fearon at prop. Joffa Harris finally entered the match with 15 minutes to go and made a big impact, teaming with Kevin Rebay to keep the YCAC Number 8 in check, stealing the ball from him in some thundering tag team tackles. Neither team was getting the line breaks though and it was a forward dominated battle through much of the period broken up by some deep kicks coming from both side. Full back Yoichi Ohira played a superb match defending strongly, taking high kicks and returning them with gusto. Riki Pitter also showed some very handy touches on defense and in attack; while Al Nimmo and Aki were combining superbly at center, shutting down the YCAC import and his team mates for most of the match.
As the game wore on and into the final 10 minutes the tension was electric. The Gaijin supporters taunted the YCAC forwards from the sidelines and the looks on their faces said it all. What is more, their frustration was overflowing into mistakes and penalties, including the 4 yellow cards that were given on the day. This ill-discipline cost the Yokohama team in player numbers and territory and it was the Gaijin who thereby dominated the second half. A tap penalty was taken quickly by Kitahara-san who charged up the middle, allowing Rory Brown to follow through. A ruck out wide lead to a Kevin Rebay half line break from which Apisai Bati continued driving forward to almost score a try. At the ensuing ruck a cynical offside infringement came from a desperate YCAC, gaining them yet another player sent off for foul play and allowing Matthew Downer another 3 pointer for the Gaijin to take the lead 14-12, with just minutes remaining.
Soon after the restart, yet another blatantly late and aggressive shoulder charge by the YCAC import from Australia saw him red carded and sent from the field. With a numerical advantage in the final moments of the match, those on the sidelines believed. It was looking imminent with the intense defense of the Gaijin forwards and mid-field that we could and would hold on to win this one: our first win on YCAC soil in a decade.
In the final two minutes a deep YCAC kick by their full back (Willie, who has played with TGRFC in Sugadaira) put the pressure on the Gaijin deep inside their 22. A knock on in the tackle gave YCAC an attacking chance only to be denied. A line out to YCAC came and they thundered the ball up in the face of some brave defense by Kevin Rebay, Bati Apisai, Joffa Harris and Paulo Berriozabal again. However it was a quickly worked move spinning the ball wide as time ran out and YCAC were able to crash through and take the 5 points to seal the match 17-14.
The Gaijin were rightly devastated but the cheer that went up on the YCAC sideline was testament to the situation: they knew they had been lucky to escape in a bloody, intense encounter. Again the Gaijin had lost a match in the final seconds, just as we had our Tokyo Cup Final and Promotion matches. Again, we had given so much and come so close, only to be denied at YCAC. Again, local officiating had come into question to deny us points we felt were justified. Again, the scoreboard will reflect that the Gaijin had come up inches short at YCAC, just as we had the year before.
Off to the bar the Gaijin went to enjoy the post-match beers with their team-mates and it was - as it is every year - very obvious that the YCAC team departed early, electing not to stick around and enjoy each others company over a pint. This is one of the finest points of the Tokyo Gaijin: that we do enjoy each others company and will enjoy ourselves and the spirit of the game post-match.
Well done to the YCAC crew who showed just why they are such a dominant force in Tokyo rugby; they simply battle on to the bitter end and they certainly have the skills to pull out a win. Thanks can be extended to the YCAC leadership team of Simon Ryan, Steve Lewis and Joe Fisher for their gracious handling of the post-match function. Thanks also to Ryota who refereed extremely well overall, in what was a challenging match to officiate. Full credit to the Tokyo Gaijin players who were fielded: all put in a massive effort they can be proud of. Thank you to those players that suited up but did not get a run; unfortunately the circumstances called for the most experienced players right up to the final moments of the match. Thank you also to the supporters who came and enjoyed what was a great match and a fitting battle between two of Tokyo's top foreigner-based clubs.
Final Score: Tokyo Gaijin 14 - YCAC 17
Man of the Match: Matthew Downer
Goat of the Match: A few candidates who committed errors late in the match came to mind but they were not guilty of anything other than giving everything they had in a tough encounter. This Award therefore went to YCAC's First XV for having such ill discipline: 4 yellow cards and a red from a mix of stamping, punching, late tackling, shoulder charging and generally cynical actions. It must have been frustrating for their Captain Joe Fisher, who during his time as the Gaijin skipper had zero tolerance for such behaviour.
Funny moment of the match: As the referee and local touch judge were discussing how to deal with the punch up incident instigated by out of control YCAC players, Mike Tokue came from the far side of the field - camera and telegrahic lense in hand - letting the officials know in no uncertain terms that he had photographic evidence of the engagement and who was to blame. (Incidentally, other carded offences such as stamping, late charges, etc were videoed by TJ and are available on Youtube. ;-)
1. Chris Lucas (Australia)
2. Toru Kanamori (Japan)
3. Hiroaki Kitajima (Japan)
4. Murray Clarke (NZ)(c)
5. Mauro Sauco (Argentina)
6. David Kevlar (USA)
7. Kevin Rebay (France)
8. Paulo Berriozabal (Basque)
9. Rory Brown (South Africa)
10. Matthew Downer (NZ)
11. Bati Apisai (Fiji)
12. Alistair Nimmo (England)
13. Tsumugi Aki (Japan)
14. Riki Pitter (France)
15. Yoichi Ohira (Japan)
Reserves fielded: Toby Gallagher (Ireland), Will Thompson (Australia), Rob Poulton (England), Chris Fearon (NZ), So Nagashima (Japan), Joffa Harris (Australia).