The TGRFC earned their place in the Semi Finals of the Tokyo Cup 2nd Division, courtesy of their superior points differential. As 4th place qualifiers we would be drawn against the team with the most points and arguably the best team in the competition – All Jin Jyan (A.J.J). (NOTE: The winner of each of the three pools and the best second place finisher went through to the semi-finals. The TGRFC had a For & Against of +74 which allowed them to sneak into 4th position ahead of Dasewa Club which had a points differential of +70.) Whilst the Gaijin had only qualified fourth, they had shown through the previous two weeks 50+ points games, that they were a team that had unfinished business.
Throughout the week there was a lot of talk based around what little we knew about the opposition and what we could do to combat their strengths. As time progressed we established ways to negate their strengths and began to concentrate on ours.
Contrary to popular belief several players shelved their normal pre-match routine of late nights and booze to concentrate on the early Sunday start. Unfortunately some didn’t, but Rob Poulton knows who he is so we don’t need to mention names. Further to this, the lack of helpers meant that we could not even field a full squad of reserves, going into the match with just 20 players. And in undetermined conditions, we were sure to need every member available.
On this occasion the team rallied and some tough calls were made to aid the team in the effort to gain entrance to the final of the Tokyo Cup 2nd division. Among those big calls was preparing our new front row by phone on the way to the ground. A special thanks to Joe Fisher, Garrett Washington and Chris Fearon, who all started the match in the front row due to late pull-outs. Although experienced in these positions, they were all playing outside of the positions where they are best utilized. However we all knew that these 3 men would be 3 that would never take a backward step, and in fact, throughout the match they would act as the catalyst for strong defense and would be members of the engine room up front that defied the All Jin Jyan any points.
The other big, yet necessary call was who to drop from the reserves bench just so we could have enough members to satisfy the ridiculous stipulations of this competition. Erin Hughes and Yoshihiro Sato took one for the team. Hughes, as Ball Boy, and Sato as Medic would at least be on hand to witness what would unfold. Unlike other members of our organization! TUT TUT!!
The game kicked off at 11:00am and thankfully was the first game on the ground that day. It was still raining and the ground was an absolute mess to say the least. The top half of the field was looking passable, but the bottom half close to the river was a mix of large puddles, gluggy puddles and mud. It was making some of the players feel quite at home, and the forwards in the side dreading what was clearly going to be a strength sapping affair.
The early stages of the match were played midfield with both teams trying to gain the ascendancy. With two packs both putting in big hits, we saw the ball spilled several times by both teams in an effort to make the hard yards in the greasy conditions. Most memorable of the hits early on was by Chris Fearon who made the All Jin Jyan forwards think twice before running at the pocket battleship again.
Soon after the packs had dueled the stand-offs then began the battle for field possession that was to permeate the whole game. With the TGRFC benefiting from some strong scrummaging and decisive rucking and mauling they progressed gradually down field. Courtesy of several penalties the Gaijin were able to stay strong on attack throughout much of the opening stanza of the game.
Pressure off the side of the point of contact by loose forwards Joffa Harris, Paulo de Berriozabal and Dave Kelver meant that pressure was able to be kept on the inside combinations of the A.J.J backs. Tactical kicking that was to prove very decisive by Matt Downer was also one of the most important facets of the TGRFC game on this day, as good work from the forwards would allow Alaister Nimmo to provide good service to the backs in what were very tough conditions playing at halfback.
Through the first 30 minutes of the game the majority of the play was in the top left hand corner of the field. There was grass here, which was proving to be a hard area for A.J.J to move away from. While they could clear it off their line on occasions, clever running by the three quarters, Yoichi Ohira, Hitoshi Chihara and Adam Shockley saw the ball returned with energy and the use of the up and under was well utilized to continue the pressure on the A.J.J backs.
Further lineout wins with new hooker Chris Fearon and locks Will Thompson and returning captain Murray Clarke, meant that we were able to give some go forward ball to the centres. Jo Iwasaki and Bati Apasai were doing their best to create gaps in the centres, but the deteriorating conditions were making getting some go forward very difficult.
With the Gaijin making all the play in the first 30 minutes, the All Jin Jyan Club was proving a very hard nut to crack. Whilst they also had some periods on attack, it was there defensive resilience that was their strong point.
It was to be after about 5 minutes of continued pressure that the Gaijin would get the chance that would prove decisive. From another good scrum about 25metres out and a little to the left of the posts, Nimmo cleared to Downer who looked up to have the A.J.J backs advancing on him quickly. With the vision that he often displays he put up a deft little chip. With the full back having to retire a little to take it he could hear the steps of several Gaijin attackers. The chip was pin point perfect giving the defender just enough time to lift his eyes before catching it to see Bati, Kelver and Chihara approaching with hunger. As he fumbled it and then tried again to recover, the plucky winger Chihara dived and with the dead ball line approaching was able to defy the horrible handling conditions by holding on to the ball and scoring the most important 5 pointer of his spell with the Gaijin yet. Downer converted a difficult conversion from about 15metres to the side of the post and the Gaijin were up by 7.
The next 10 minutes were to be played mostly deep in Gaijin territory as the only positive result from the Gaijin try for A.J.J, was that they could move out of their half and have another go at starting their reply from half way. A string of errors and penalties left the lads throwing everything they had at the opposition. One of the intelligent ploys used by the Gaijin to stop the strong drive from the lineout by the opposition was by one man tackling the lineout jumper before a strong maul could be formed by the A.J.J Club – also known as the ‘sack’. This was deemed illegal by the referee despite pleading from the Captain, Vice Captain and several forwards. The team took the decision well as arguing was obviously going to get them nowhere and then concentrated on simply knocking the stuffing out of their players with bone rattling accurate hits. (Note: The referee was to say at halftime that the reason it was penalized was that the ‘sack’ had come before the lineout jumper had hit the ground. Well that was news but at least we knew that he was aware of the rule!)
The try-scorer Hitoshi Chihara made a very important tackle on his opposite with goal line in sight, after a blind side dart from the scrum by the A.J.J inside men. The ensuing maul saw a turnover and once again the ball would be cleared.
All Jin Jyan advanced towards the line again after some scavenging around the side of the mauls by the loosies was penalized again. This time the A.J.J would get much closer. They would form a good maul and would make it over the line only to be held up. As they had the line in sight, the TGRFC forwards put all of their collective weight into blowing players out individually. The hits to the wedge were enough to loosen the bind and divide the mauling team. This was to be one of those crucial points in the match. The team failed to get that close for the rest of the half and with time running up on the clock resorted to a penalty kick at goal for points. When the kick failed TGRFC went into the half 7 – 0 up.
With the muddied mass huddled around at half time the feeling was very positive at half time, but it was to be a gruelling 40 minutes that we would have to endure before victory could be assured. With the mud cleared from the eyes and ears all was set for the second 40. This was to truly be a game of two halves as the cliché goes. While the TGRFC had seen the lions share of possession and penalties in the first half, All Jin Jyan were to be the benefactors in the second.
It was again a battle of forward packs vying for yards and the loose ball, inside backs trying to clear it efficiently enough to kick the ball down field and outside backs trying to spot a gap that would get the ball back to where it had just come from plus a few yards. The game was uneventful for much of the opening spell of the second half but at a point about 10 minutes in it could have been the winning and losing of the game.
With the Gaijin in their own half on about the forty they managed to win the ball and put up a midfield bomb for territory. With someone taking the kicker out late we had the opportunity to take the penalty back at the point of kicking or where it landed. After much confusion over which kicking tee to use Matt Downer finally lined up the penalty just to the left of the posts but about 35 out. This would give the Gaijin a healthy 10-point lead in atrocious conditions if he could land it. It slipped just to the right of the posts and instead of clearing it to the sideline or taking a 22m-drop out, the All Jin Jyan cleared a big kick up field. With the ball dropping between a number of players, 2 appeared most committed to catch it. Unfortunately they were not aware of each other’s desire. What would normally appear comical left quite a few spectators sickened by what they were witnessing. Matt Downer came off the field with a shoulder injury and our only other option was Yoichi and he was suffering some serious ill effects of the blow as well. Step up Adam Shockley! In only his second game for the Gaijin he moved from Fullback to fill the whole left at standoff. Although he was thrust into the position, his previous work throughout the game left him with very heavy legs and struggling to cope with the diabolical field conditions.
Other changes to the team meant that the team was down to its last legs. We had Gaz Dalrymple at hooker for Fearon, another that stood up and did the team proud. With Nimmo taking the lineout throw-ins, Dalrymple didn’t look quite at home at halfback though, and was quickly replaced in the position by Paulo de Berriozabal.
Other difficulties were an injured Riki Pitter, himself a replacement on the wing. After a breakout from deep inside our own half he had met a diving defender with his knee and that had left him with a bad knee for the rest of the match. He had to soldier on as all reserves were used and we could not spare another player.
In the final 20 minutes the Gaijin did not make it out of their own 40 for any sustained period. They defended resolutely and took every tide that the All Jin Jyan could throw at them. Time and again the forwards and backs of the opposition threw themselves at the Gaijin line but not once did it break.
It was an effort that will be remembered fondly for the sheer desperation of the defense. The Gaijin conceded many penalties for ruck infringements over the last quarter of the game – offside, not coming through the gate, and hands in the ruck, in their efforts to stop every juggernaut that their opposition could muster. Most memorable was the force with which every tap and go runner was hit and bought down. Joe Fisher and Paulo de Berriozabal, in particular, are the names that spring to mind. It is folly to mention all names as every member stood up and was counted on this occasion.
In their desperation to score A.J.J would tap and charge at the line and set up a strong platform to maul the ball over. On more than one occasion it seemed that the first tackle was a legitimate hard tackle but the referee claimed that the tackler was bringing down the maul. A matter of interpretation I guess!
During this time a couple of things worked very well for the Gaijin Club. Adam Shockley, doing a good job filling in for the injured Downer, would clear the ball after some resolute defense had caused a turnover. Then Murray Clarke, jumping at two in the lineout, would win the opposition’s throw-in. The Gaijin won 4 or 5 balls this way. The defensive lineout also worked superbly with Joe Fisher and Garrett Washington showing brute strength to push the A.J.J pack towards the sideline.
Another moment of sheer grit was when Sean O`Donoghue stole the ball off a well-formed maul and called for support. The vital yards that were gained with that turnover and clearing kick was the type of mental victory that gave the team the inner strength to continue battling for the rest of the half.
As time ticked down, watched very closely by all witnessing this epic battle, tensions rose. While all on the field could concentrate on the task at hand, those on the sideline were mulling over the benefits of a 5 pointer for the opposition. If it was wide enough out they might miss the conversion and we would still have the lead. It would also mean that the ball would be back to half way and release some of the pressure that we had on our line. But with the boys looking increasingly desperate to simply breath, we looked unlikely to conjure enough energy to get us close enough to score again, so to hold firm on the line was the only option.
After summoning all sorts of incredible strength the team received some respite when another big tackle and power play by the TGRFC forwards had the All Jin Jyan offending. We could clear it off our line. Bati had worried several players and spectators with a ludicrous run in front of the stand off, in which he provided both a dummy runner and team goat nominee performance (He assured all after the match that in fact he had seen the referee give a penalty advantage to the Gaijin).
The final minutes of the game brought a repeat of the last minutes of the first half with A.J.J banging on the door of the Gaijin try line. Repeated penalties gave A.J.J unlimited chances and there were some watching that wondered when he might reach into his pocket for a card. But the harder A.J.J knocked at the door the more forcefully they were turned away. Fisher and Washington continued to crush charge after charge, physically dominating the A.J.J and stopping their relentless assault. Both of the bookends were later rewarded with Man of the Match honours for their efforts.
From ensuing plays the team was unable to clear the ball from the ruck and all were left with their heart in their hands as it looked like it might be turned over. But the final play of the game saw the ball willed by all members of the team over the sideline and the final whistle blew.
TGRFC spectators, players and helpers present were all spontaneous in victory celebrations and the look of sheer pain on several of the opposition players faces was enough to display how close they knew they had come to winning, and our team losing.
It was a precious victory and one that was so much sweeter for the sheer tenacity in which it was gained. All day the opposition was made to work for every inch they got and yet still they could not break the scoring shackles that the Gaijin imposed on them. The whole forward pack had tackled themselves to a standstill time and time again. For what seemed like the entire second half they had defended resolutely and it was their fortitude in such trying conditions that had eventually won the game for the Gaijin Club. The backs were solid and well led by Downer, until his unfortunate injury,
but it was not really a day for the backs to shine. They too had tackled everything that moved ensuring that the A.J.J Club had to score through their forwards if they were ever going to score.
For all present it was to be a great TGRFC victory, but hopefully one surpassed by the tremendous efforts that all players would put into the final coming up the following week.
Thanks always goes to all the helpers that make participation in the Tokyo Cup possible and to all those that make an effort to support our team by coming, or in some cases allowing us to be there (read girlfriends/wives/children). Thanks to medic Yoshihiro Sato, linesman Blake Walker, manager Jesse Takahashi, Erin Hughes, Hiroko Fisher, Kevin, Naoko and Chihiro.
Thank you all and see you this weekend for a game that will surely prove to be another great battle.
SCORE: TGRFC 7 (Hitoshi Chihara 1 try, Matt Downer 1 conversion) All Jin Jyan 0
Men of the Match: Garrett Washington and Joe Fisher
Goat of the Match: Gaz Dalrymple. (for a ‘movement’ mid-match)
1. Garrett Washington (USA)
2. Chris Fearon (NZ)
3. Joe Fisher (NZ)
4. Will Thompson (Australia)
5. Murray Clarke (NZ)
6. Dave Kelver (USA)
7. Paulo de Berriozabal (Basque)
8. Joffa Harris (Australia)
9. Alaister Nimmo (England)
10. Matt Downer (NZ)
11. Yoichi Ohira (Japan)
12. Jo Iwasaki (Japan)
13. Apisai Bati (Fiji)
14. Hitoshi Chihara (Japan)
15. Adam Shockley (USA)
16. Gaz Dalrymple (Scotland)
17. Sean O`Donoghue (Ireland)
18. Riki Pitter (France)
19. Andy Ballard (England)
20. Ken Kondo (Japan)