Global warming or not, it must be noted that the 2009 Tokyo Cup is probably the hottest I have ever personally played in. Hot dry days every weekend - it is great! Unless you are a 100kg Gaijin forward going into the final quarter of an 80 minute rugby match. The heat had shown up the Gaijin fitness or lack thereof over the first few rounds where we competed bravely but were ultimately put away by a faster and more committed opposition over the final 20-30 minutes.
This time out, playing on a Wednesday we were struggling to put together a forward pack as late as Tuesday evening and were even considering playing our halfback Al Nimmo at flanker, just as we had been forced to do to Rory Brown the week previous. Work schedules, injuries and the judiciary had left us depleted of some forwards but the team that turned out looked the goods. Tomoyuki Togo made his first start in the absence of Chris Feron; Rob Paulton made it from the pub to play second row (rather than the usual prop); newcomer Richard O'Shea slotted in as his second row partner; while Bati Apisai returned to the flanker after pretending (successfully) to be a back for the past few years. For the backs, Akira Asada was finally able to make his first start for the Gaijin after injuring himself early in the tournament at training, Yoichi Ohira was moved into the centers and Steve "Eps" Bull stepped in to full back.
Facing the Tokyo Cup Division One leaders, Tama Club, we expected a hard day at the coal face and hence the pre-match routine was casual and high expectations were generally put to one side. The Gaijin intended to go out and enjoy a good run in the sun.
The Gaijin started with gusto though and it was obvious from the outset that the boys were going to make life hard for Tama, containing them in the tackle and also finding gaps to keep play around the middle of the field through the initial stages of the match. Our scrum was solid through some great work by stalwart props Takayuki Kitajima and Chris Lucas, who both lasted the full 80 minutes and were highly active on both attack and defense. Our line out was strong with some excellent throwing by Tomo Togo at hooker and good jumping by the tall timber of Toby Gallagher and Rich O'Shea, ably lifted by Taka, Chris Lucas and Rob Paulton. Ball continuity (possession) was excellent with the backs keeping play relatively close to the forwards and support work was also very good in the early stages with Bati Apisai making a big impact.
It was the Gaijin who would have the first chances to win points and after a penalty miss from wide out, Matthew Downer stepped up to kick 3 points and give the Gaijin some confidence early on. The only point of concern was that the Gaijin were not at all securing the ball from high kicks being bombed at them from the Tama flyhalf and fullback. These were left to bounce high on the hard dry track and give the attackers a chance to either trap us or to win the ball. Under pressure in our 22, Matt Downer and Asada-san showed what impact they make as a pairing at flyhalf and center, with both able to clear our lines through these phases.
Unfortunately it was an unsecured up-and-under that gave the Tama backs a chance to attack down the left flank after winning the bounce and shipping the ball wide. They were shut down by some good tackling by Hitoshi Chihara and Rob Paulton but after a series of penalties the Tama forwards were found hammering away at our line, picking up and mauling in small units from close range, eventually crashing through to the line and taking the lead 3-5.
Again it was an unsecured kick that led to the next attacking phase from Tama and they were also winning penalties for hands in the ruck and a few offsides. Tama continued to go for the try but the Gaijin defense was solid if not spectacular at times. Multiple times Bati Apisai showed extraordinary strength and nouse to get in on the tackle and steal the ball for Asada-san or Matt to clear the lines once more. Back Tama would come and the Gaijin would win the ball back once more. During these battles Asada-san made some great plays, breaking the line on a few occasions, as did "Eps" who also supported well. Tomo Togo was playing a huge game defensively through this period and even had to clear the lines with a solid kick for touch, as did wing, Andy Ballard who kicked well. Toby and Joffa were containing the Tama #8 who had speed and strength off the back of the scrum and Al Nimmo also got involved to steal the ball.
Both sides had a few errors at their line outs during these early tussles and it was not clear which team was on top, though Tama were winning by territory. In fact it clearly looked as though Tama Club had walked in to this game knowing they were top of the table and that we had just been spanked by Musashino and Kurumi (teams I believe we could have easily beaten on this day). The few times the Gaijin looked to break out of our half with ball in hand involved Asada-san, "Eps", Matt Downer, Toby Gallagher, Hitoshi Chihara and Bati Apisai, who made a couple of big runs to give the Tama defense problems. Such good play was of course interspersed with errors that would immediately reverse the advantage gained. It was such an error (a Gaijin pass intercepted as we attacked over the Tama 10 meter line) that saw the next points scored as we were suddenly turned around by a neat chip by the flyhalf. The nicely weighted kick was picked up by the fullback who ran hard for the corner, breaking some last gasp tackles to score and put the Gaijin down 3-12.
We still had confidence and following the restart Tama overthrew their tail jumper and Bati was quick to pounce, delivering the ball nicely for Matt who chipped over the defense for Andy Ballard to run on to. The ball did not stick and was lost forward but the chances were starting to come for the Gaijin who were now - dare I say - starting to get dominance. A kicking dual began to emerge as both teams looked for field positioning and the game was becoming a back and forth affair as neither team were able to break the defensive lines.
It was Tama who were able to get through once again though, this time through some nice communication in the backs. Hitoshi Chihara had made a steal and had run inside but was trapped in the ruck where the ball was unfortunately turned over. The Tama flyhalf was quick to spot the opportunity with his winger calling to him and they attacked down the left flank. Rob Paulton was virtually alone as our defense reacted too slowly and the winger charged onward. A chip kick raced in behind our lines and bounced awkwardly for "Eps" (who was struggling with an ankle sprain at this stage) and although all players within view saw a knock-on by the Tama center, the referee awarded a try and before we knew it the Gaijin were down by 3-17 with half time immediately following.
The half time talk was simple and all agreed that it was a communication issue that had let us down as some people were now tiring and not getting into position quickly enough. Overall everything was going well except for this one problem area, so it was hoped that the lads could keep up the momentum through the second half without tiring in the heat and with the pace of the match.
The second half continued similar to the end of the first with the Gaijin generally dominating possession and keeping play around half way or on the Tama side of half way but generally unable to penetrate the 22. Errors and turnovers would keep letting us down. Rob Paulton was increasingly involved in pick and drive plays, while Matt Downer was also increasingly aggressive on attack.
Throughout we were winning good line out ball through Toby and Rich O'Shea but a knock on in the mid-field let us down. Taka Kitajima notably made a huge tackle to cause a turnover and he also was winning the battle with his opposite at scrum time. One one occasion the Gaijin pack was able to wheel the Tama scrum to win a key turnover at the halfway line. Up the Gaijin came with some pick and go's by the forwards led to Matt Downer crashing it up and punishing his opposite number for attempting the tackle. The ball was recycled to Taka again, then offloaded to Joffa Harris (who was involved through this stage more than he had been in the first half). Harris charged up and toward the Tama 5 meter line and Rob Paulton, Hitoshi Chihara and then Taka Kitajima (again) all kept bashing at the line.
The desperate Tama forwards were caught coming into the rucks from the side and the ensuing penalty move (Psycho) where Bati charged the blindside but was dragged out. The ball had come off a Tama player though and once Hitoshi had retired to the blood bin for a cut to his nose, again we attacked. The line out move tailored for Bati was knocked on though and Tama had the feed for a scrum 8 meters out from their line and a chance to clear their lines. Some great pressure from Al Nimmo (who is such a pest for any opposition at the back of the scrum) led to a botched pass from the Tama halfback and it was Joffa Harris who showed good speed to pounce on the ball and score a try. The Gaijin were now in the hunt at 8-17.
The Gaijin were energized by the try and attacked feverishly though Bati Apisai, Asada-san and Matt Downer. Al Nimmo was darting through gaps, Hitoshi was crashing up and in the thick of things and notably lineout lads, Rich O'Shea and Toby Gallagher, were featuring as key men in linking up with the backs. Chris Lucas featured in a nice drive, as did Blake Walker (on for the ailing "Eps") and Tomo Togo. The Gaijin bashed away at the Tama line but were repelled time and time again. If a try could be scored it was anyone's game but unfortunately we could just not get through.
The last effort was a chip through by the Gaijin that was slightly over-weighted, giving Tama a chance to clear their lines. They did just that: again their clever flyhalf, spotting that we had no defenders wide on the left side, drop-kicked deep and wide to gain a line out beyond our 10 meter line. This led to a scrum and suddenly the tiring Gaijin were on the back foot giving up an easy overlap on the right hand side and allowing Tama an escape. They ran the ball in under the posts and took their lead to 8-22.
With Blake Walker, Fukuda-kun and Jeff Takahashi already on the field for a broken down "Eps", a hungover Yoichi and Andy "the Star" Ballard, respectively, additional replacements came on to offer a fresh approach. Yoz Togo was on for Joffa Harris, Charles Joffre came on for Hitoshi Chihara (who had played a strong game to be exhausted by the end), Jonathan Burns on for Rob Paulton, and Gazz Dalrymple was in for hooker Tomo Togo (who also had played superbly with high energy throughout).
Though the Gaijin still dominated possession, we could not break the line. Despite the result, some measure of dignity was restored to a Gaijin campaign had been reeling after two (big) early losses. Though this result makes an unprecedented 3-in-a-row, the team needs to take into account the type of competition we are up against in Division One. As Manager Jesse Takahashi mentioned pre-game, for the Tokyo Gaijin to compete at this level with just one sporadically attended training session per week, we can be proud of being competitive. The other teams at the top of Division Two and all the First Division teams train mid-week and on Sundays and this showed clearly in our first few matches where cohesion and fitness were major barriers to success.
Overall, we must be happy with the day. It was a fast, free-flowing game in which we competed throughout. It was a clean game and one that it seemed all enjoyed, whether viewed from on the pitch or from the sidelines.
Final Score: TGRFC 8 (Matt Downer penalty, Joffa Harris try), Tama Club 22 (3 tries).
Man of Match: Bati Apisai
Medic: Yoshihiro Sato
Match Day 22:
1. Chris Lucas (Australia)
2. Tomoyuki Togo (Japan)
3. Takayuki Kitajima (Japan)
4. Rob Paulton (England)
5. Richard O'Shea (Wales)
6. Bati Apisai (Fiji)
7. Toby Gallagher (Ireland)
8. Joffa Harris (Australia)
9. Al Nimmo (England)
10. Matthew Downer (New Zealand)
11. Hitoshi Chihara (Japan)
12. Akira Asada (Japan)
13. Yoichi Ohira (Japan)
14. Andy Ballard (England)
15. Steve "Eps" Bull (England)
Reserves: Gazz Dalrymple (Scotland), Yoz Togo (Japan), Charles Joffre (France), Blake Walker (New Zealand), Jonathan Burns (USA), Ikuo Fukuda (Japan), Jeffrey Takahashi (USA).