April 5, 2009 - The Tokyo Gaijin turned up at Misato Rugby Ground expecting a tough encounter against Musashino Ruggers in their first Tokyo Cup game for 2009. It was the first time in almost a decade that the team had made it to 1st Division and the team was under no illusions as to how tough the competition would be. Musashino Ruggers had beaten TGRFC in the 2nd Division final last year in the final minute to snatch victory, so the team were hoping for revenge to get their Tokyo Cup campaign off to a good start.

As is often usual though, things did not go to plan in the preparation. From a squad of 54 registered players the team struggled to get 20 willing and able participants. Of course there were a few of the usual injuries but these tough times seem to be putting a strain on the salaryman’s free time. There also seemed to be a hell of a lot of people getting married, or at least preparing for marriage, in Tokyo on this particular weekend. There were a few ‘usual’ late people putting the teams’ hoped for good preparation 30 minutes behind schedule. In fact Aussie lock Will Thompson was 10 minutes late for the compulsory dress check (which is 80 minutes before kickoff under Tokyo Cup rules!), which cancelled him out of the game altogether and brought big Argentinian forward Mauro Sauco off the bench and into the starting squad. A few members of the team also went to the wrong field making Match Manager Jesse Takahashi’s job a real nightmare. After getting everyone to the right field and a mad scramble to get their gear on for the dress check, the team settled down for a warm-up and psyche up.

Musashino kicked off running away from the river. Their kickoff didn’t go 10 metres, which had some on the sideline thinking it just may not be Musashino’s day. For the first 5 minutes the Gaijin had all the running with some good sniping runs from Alaister Nimmo and good inside passes to Takayuki Kitajima storming down the side of the ruck. The Gaijin were rewarded with a penalty and Matt Downer stepped up for a shot at goal from halfway. The ball faded to the left and the score remained at nil all.

Soon after the Gaijin were penalized for going over the top. Musashino were quick to get the ball out wide but Matt Downer hammered the ball carrier to put a stop to a potential try through sheer numbers.

The Gaijin lost the ball soon after a good lineout win on the oppositions` throw-in 5 metres out from the Gaijin line. In was to prove an expensive loss as Musashino went blind on the ensuing scrum. The Gaijin flanker, Kelver, was too slow out of the blocks, leaving Apisai bati on the wing defending three attackers. He had no chance and the Musashino Ruggers were on the board. They failed to convert leaving the score at 5 v 0 to Musashino.

The match started to turn over the next 20 minutes with the Gaijin being constantly penalized for ruck infringements, which forced them to spend long periods in their own 22 defending. The early summer heat was also starting to tell on some of the bigger Gaijin forwards. A few times halfback Al Nimmo was seen driving over the ruck because there were no forwards around to do the job. Matt Downer was keeping them out of trouble with some booming kicks down field, but Musashino would slowly edge their way back up field. A penalty for a ruck infringement would invariably come and the Gaijin would be defending in their 22 again. From the sideline, the ruck infringements seemed to be coming from both sides. At one particular ruck close to this writer on the sideline, Apisai Bati was first there reefing at the ball. There are very few as good as Bati when it comes to ripping opposition ball from them. The ball carrier took an eternity to release the ball. Then when it looked lost, hands came in from the Musashino players and they won the ball and their blatant indiscretion went unpenalised. The point is that the indiscretions were coming from both sides but only one seemed to be getting penalized for it. The Musashino No.8 had also lashed out with his boot while on the ground, catching Captain Murray Clarke on the side of the face but of course, the referee missed it.

There were two scoring chances for the Gaijin as the half wore down. Captain Murray Clarke, playing at No.8, went blindside off the back of a scrum but was pushed into touch before he could make it over the try line. Mike Crafton, in his last game for the Gaijin, made a bullocking run at the line and beat three defenders. As he was tackled on the line he reached out and smashed the ball down to the jubilation of his teammates. Unbelievably the referee ruled No-try claiming that Crafton lost control of the ball. It is common knowledge that when a ball is slammed down it will bounce back up but the Gaijin didn’t have the luxury of a video replay. What they did have was a referee who lacked common sense and was not going to do them any favors. This may have been a turning point in the game.

The half finished with the score at 5 v 0 to the Musashino Ruggers. Though they led on the scoreboard most onlookers thought that the half had been fairly even. The match so far had been a dour one, with the Japanese referee not improving the contest as a spectacle with his pedantic controlling of the match. There had been some controversial and dubious decision making. All were hoping that the referee would use a little more common sense before using his whistle for ruck infringements (and perhaps be a little fairer) in the second half and the Gaijin would come home the stronger team.

Although unable to maintain possession for any long periods of time, the Gaijin looked dangerous on occasions in the first half. Akiba, Bati, Downer and Kitajima had all made nice breaks but ran out of support when they needed it. There wasn’t a lack of effort from the Gaijin but there was certainly a lack of spark. The team didn’t seem to make the most of their opportunities early in the game and seemed to be a little bit off mentally (was it the buildup?).

Despite the Gaijin players and supporters holding high hopes for the second half after certainly holding their own in the first half, the Musashino Ruggers went to another level in the second half and ended up running away with the game to the tune of 31 v 0 with 4 more unanswered tries.

The sending off of Captain Murray Clarke with about 15 minutes left didn’t help the team. The Musashino No.8, joining the ruck late and from the side, kneed Clarke in the back as he came flying in. Clearly his intent. It was the second time that the Musashino No.8 was responsible for “dirty” play and both times it involved Clarke. The Musashino player seemed to be getting away with murder, as both times the referee was unsighted. Clarke decided to take things into his own hands, lashing back at his opposite number and thereby had the red card waved in his as the referee, showing his first real grasp of English, yelled “Get out of here!” Unbelievably, the linesman, standing right next to this writer (and a very neutral assistant – as he is the Gaijin’s rep on the refereeing committee) didn’t see it. Justice was not served! Musashino No.8: Two; Gaijin No.8: Zero. We all know that the person who responds to niggly play gets penalized but one can’t help but feel that Clarke was hard done by.

At this level there is such a fine line between winning and losing games. The energy levels between teams go a long way towards the result and I think it’s fair to say that the Ruggers had a big edge here in the second half. The Gaijin never really got any momentum or rhythm after the first 10 minutes of the second half. Ultimately the Gaijin paid the price for the number of turnovers going the Ruggers way. They also lacked the composure and execution at key moments.

The result of the match once again showed that the Gaijin, while brave, need to handle adversity better to lift themselves from the bottom of the First Division cellar. It will be a real test of character for the team as a group how they move forward. They can actually take a lot of goodness out of the defeat even though the result does hurt.

SCORE: Musashino Ruggers 31 (5 tries, 3 conversions) :TGRFC 0

MAN OF THE MATCH: Alaister Nimmo

TEAM:

  1. Chris Lucas (Australia)
  2. Chris Fearon (New Zealand)
  3. Takayuki Kitajima (Japan)
  4. Mauro Sauco (Argentina)
  5. Mike Crafton (USA)
  6. Dave Kelver (USA)
  7. Toby Gallagher (England)
  8. Murray Clarke (New Zealand)
  9. Alaister Nimmo (England)
  10. Matt Downer (New Zealand)
  11. Ikuo Fukuda (Japan)
  12. Blake Walker (New Zealand)
  13. Tsumugi Akiba (Japan)
  14. Apisai Bati (Fiji)
  15. Andy Ballard (England)
  16. Yoz Togo (Japan)
  17. Justin Myner (USA)
  18. Gaz Dalrymple (Scotland)
  19. Tomo Togo (Japan)
  20. Yoshihiro Sato (Japan)