Dateline: February 19th, 2012
A shock win by the Tokyo Gaijin RFC over Mandara RFC in the Champions League (a.k.a the Cup Winners Cup) has put other powerhouse teams of the various Tokyo Competitions on notice. The Tokyo Gaijin RFC came back from a 22 v 5 halftime deficit to score 29 unanswered points to storm their way to an impressive 34 v 29 victory, with Mandara getting a consolation try at the death. The victory was possibly one of the best for the Gaijin over the past ten years. They had to overcome a powerful Mandara scrum and an overly officious and one-sided referee along the way to victory.
The game at Hino Motors Rugby Field out in western Tokyo was billed as the game of the year for the Gaijin and was played at a cracking pace. The Gaijin had had an intense training run the week before and were in a good mindset before the game but nothing ever runs smoothly. The kickoff was changed from 9:00 a.m to 1:00 p.m on the Friday evening just two days before. This ruled out one player and caused two guys to spend 4 hours killing time looking at the snow-capped Japanese Alps as they failed to read the late e-mail sent out about the time change. Locks Richard O'Shea and John Simpson were ruled out with injury during the week and Shintaro was also unavailable due to job-hunting. One further choice at lock, Takeshi Ochiai had had a car accident in Singapore two days before and wasn't in the right condition or state of mind. To fill the void, up stepped Murray Clarke, coming out of semi-retirement for a crack at glory. Another who has not been seen in the Tokyo Gaijin strip for sometime was prop Takayuki Kitajima, who also answered the SOS call.
Courtesy of the undefeated season in the Shuto League, the Gaijin were up against winners of other Leagues from in and around Tokyo, and were unlucky to draw Mandara RFC in the first game of the knock-out competition, as Mandara were strong favorites to take out the title of best amateur team in Tokyo.
Mandara RFC were first to score when their winger was set free down the right wing after sustained pressure on the Gaijin defence, scoring in the 8th minute. The pressure was self-inflicted by the Gaijin with Joe Nawaqavanua dropping the ball with his first touch not long after the game kicked off and 6 penalties against them for ruck infringements in the first 5 minutes. Moments earlier the first scrum from the Gaijin was strong and they seemingly earned themselves a reset and feed after twisting the Mandara scrum on their own feed but the referee didn't feel that way. In the next scrum the Gaijin were penalised for going too early and from then on it was all one-way in the scrums as Mandara RFC completely dominated the Gaijin scrum and had them backpeddaling and breaking up. Mandara failed with the conversion but they had the first bragging points and a 5 v 0 lead.
The game started to get very heated with Mandara getting all the borderline calls. Two poor calls were made in a matter of minutes when Mandara seemed to be going off their feet in the ruck but the Gaijin were penalised and then moments later the Gaijin scrum was penalised again in what should have been a penalty for the Gaijin as Mandara hit and had the Gaijin scrum backpeddaling before the ball had even been put in.
The Gaijin looked good when they were running the ball but the constant penalties against them gave Mandara valuable territory and they twice managed to duck Gaijin try-scoring opportunities when they were gifted penalties. The intense scrum pressure told in the 23rd minute when Mandara scored a pushover try. The conversion hit the post and bounced away but their lead was now 10 v 0.
The Gaijin managed to halt the one-way traffic when Sam Deroeck made a big run from fullback, linked with Shinichiro Nakayama, who then passed to Matt Downer to go over the try-line midway between posts and sideline. It was a sweeping 60 metre movement that showed that the Gaijin were well in the game if they kept the ball in hand and avoided the set-pieces. Toshi Miyano failed with the conversion but it was game on at 10 v 5.
Mandara were at their scrummaging best soon after though and were going for another pushover try. At the last minute their big orange-mohawked No.8 charged off the back and crashed through the Gaijin defense. Once again the conversion was missed leaving the score at 15 v 5.
A few minutes before halftime the Mandara standoff put in a cross-field kick that bounced in the in-goal. Though the Gaijin defense was there first but the ball managed to avoid them all and a lucky bounce was presented to the Mandara winger who dived on it. This time the conversion was successsful and the Mandara RFC held a handy 22 v 5 lead at halftime.
The TGRFC knew they had a lot to do in the second half and captain Alistair Nimmo gave them a verbal spray. It was obvious that they had to value the ball more and avoid scrums as much as possible. They also had to put on their angel halos at the ruck as the referee was particularly harsh on them in this area. Some would also have been wishing that the referee took off his black and red glasses (Manadara's colours!) and improved his eye-sight in the break. Keeping the ball in hand and running at the Mandara backs was one area of their game that they were looking to do more of in the second half.
The Gaijin came out pumped up with a 'Go strong or go home' attitude and a decent wind at their backs. They set hearts racing in the 6th minute of the second half with a try to replacement winger Keiichiro Endo. Sam Deroeck had made another strong run, and Matt Downer followed up with another. Big Joe Nawaqavanua looked set to score in the left corner but he was tackled into touch. The Gaijin were on a roll though and great support play from the forwards had them throwing themselves at the Mandara line until their opposition cracked. Miyano missed the conversion to leave the score at 22 v 10.
Sam Dereock was in the action again soon after with another powerful, tackle shredding run and Keiichiro Endo got the Gaijin close to the Mandara line with explosive pace down the right flank. After a few powerful rucks in a row Joe Nawaqavanua crashed over the line under the posts and with the successful conversion by Miyano the score was now 22 v 17. Wo-oh. Game on!
The ball in the hand tactic was working and the Mandara backline defense was slipping off tackles. Matt Downer couldn't have showed this better soon after when he broke through tackle after tackle with a powerful 60 metre run and then outpaced the cover defence to score to the right of the posts. Miyano failed with the conversion but the game was now tied up at 22-all.
Mandara got up into the Gaijin 22-metre area and were looking intent on taking back the lead but excellent Gaijin defence forced a turnover and they worked their way back upfield. Nik Pavesic, having a strong game at his favorite position of lock, broke through a few tackles and scored under the posts to put the Gaijin in the lead for the first time and Toshi Miyano increased the lead with a successful conversion to make the score 29 v 22 for the Gaijin.
The comeback wasn't over yet. Nik Pavesic was in the action again soon after when he ran blind side from a ruck, drew the winger and gave Keiichiro Endo a free run down the left flank. As the Manadara fullback reached him Endo put through a well-weighted grubber kick, moments before he was smashed into touch. Sam Dereock chased hard and forced the Manadara sweeper to kick the ball into touch. The Gaijin could smell a further try coming and mauled with ferocity from the following line out. Apisai Bati, who had only been on the field for a matter of minutes, peeled off the back of the maul and charged down a narrow blind to crash through a defender and score in the corner. Matt Downer was unsuccessful with the sideline conversion but the Gaijin had now jumped out to a 34 v 22 lead and were now believers. They just had to defend well and keep on the good side of the referee over the last 5 minutes and a glorious victory would be theirs.
Mandara managed to force a mistake from the kickoff and were attacking the Gaijin line with a renewed intensity and managed to score a late consolation try next to the posts. As the Gaijin waited for the conversion attempt there must have been butterflies in every players stomach as that was certainly the case on the sidelines. Was the referee going to bring play back for another kickoff and give Mandara one more chance to steal victory or was time up? Immediately after the quickly taken drop goal the referee blew his whistle for time up and the Gaijn players and suppporters erupted as one. There were scenes of wild jubilation as the supporters ran onto the field to join their weary warriors in elated hugs, chest beating, back-slapping and broad smiles. A thrilling win to the tune of 34 v 29.
The match was a delight to watch with neither team giving any quarter. The Mandara RFC dominated the scrums and had the Gaijin front row under immense pressure for most of the game, but their front row seemed to tire as the match wore on and the Gaijin managed to hold their own towards the end. The line outs were fairly even but the Gaijin narrowly dominated the rucks. It was hard to pick out a superior performer in the pack as they all toiled admirably but Nik Pavesic was probably the pick of the bunch.
There was blanket praise for the backs who put on a show of brick wall defense in the second half, and none were better than Matt Downer and Sam Dereock. Both were creative in attack and played key roles in the majority of the tries scored. They both showed remarkable footwork, pace and explosive power constantly breaking tackles. Downer narrowly won the Man of the Match award over Deroeck. Joe Nawaqavanua was given the Goat of the Match for dropping two balls deep inside Gaijin territory and putting the Gaijin under immense pressure.
The referee was also was a prime contender for the Goat of the Game in what can only described as a poor and unbalanced game. While the Gaijin were certainly guilty of hands in the ruck etc, the Mandara players seemed to get away with murder. As the second half ticked away they often flopped off their feet in rucks and failed to roll away, slowing down Gaijin ball - and got away with it. The 'grey' area of when a ruck 'officially' becomes a ruck often went against the Gaijin and caused frustration. Basically any 50/50 calls went against the Gaijin and caused temperatures to reach boiling point. His 'official' linesmen weren't much help either failing to spot any obvious infractions that the dim-sighted referee missed. The heavy penalty count against the Gaijin made the win even more meritorious.
Things don't get any easier for the Gaijin as they now go on to face their second round opponents Supermen, who handed the Gaijin two big losses last year.
Many thanks to all the reserve players who didn't get on and to all the supporters who turned up to give their vocal support.
SCORE: TGRFC 34 (Matt Downer 2, Keiichiro Endo 1, Joe Nawaqavanua 1, Apisai Bati 1, Nik Pavesic 1 tries; Toshi Miyano 2/5, Matt Downer 0/1 conversions) Mandara RFC 29 (5 tries, 2/5 conversions)
MAN OF THE MATCH: Matt Downer
Goat of the Match: Joe Nawaqavanua
1. John Herger (USA)
2. Liam Ramshaw (England)
3. Takayuki Kitajima (Japan)
4. Murray Clarke (NZ)
5. Nik Pavesic (Croatia)
6. Joe Nawaqavanua (Fiji)
7. Shinichiro Nakayama (vc) (Japan)
8. Takashi Tanikawa (Japan)
9. Alaister Nimmo (c) (England)
10. Toshi Miyano (Japan)
11. Bryan O'Brien (USA)
12. Matt Downer (NZ)
13. Mosese Rarasea (Fiji)
14. Hitoshi Chihara (Japan)
15. Sam Deroeck (England)
Reserves used: Akio Yoneda (Japan), Apisai Bati (Fiji), Keiichiro Endo (Japan)