Out came the Gaijin for a big must win final against a team we had beaten over the past few seasons, the last time being 2004. Musashino clearly were a better side and we expected as much with the pre-match reconn raising the fact that they had 1) not scored less than 36 points in any game in the Tokyo Cup (even during the mud bog semi final), 2) had been winning due to a solid platform by their forwards and 3) they had two classy looking wingers with pace to burn. The Gaijin came into the match after blowing their Round 1 assignment against Fuji who succumbed to Musashino in the Semi 36-0. We had come good since then and racked up some 50+ scores to reach the playoff stage and had won our Semi-Final in the mud 7-0 by playing much of the game within our half and on our try line. As a team we certainly felt we had the character and talent to win against anyone and we were in for a tough match.
The game started well for the Gaijin as our forwards dominated loose play. Errors were coming from Musashino's backline who looked rattled. Their forwards also were clearly emotional and fired up, letting loose with some wild tackles that were penalized promptly by the referee who it must be said looked short of finals-level experience. The Gaijin battled hard through Garrett Washington on open side, Joe Fisher at loose head and Chris Fearon at Hooker, all carrying the ball up well. Joffa Harris worked hard but as the first half wore on it was clear his injured knee was affecting his play. In the backs, Jo Iwasaki was solid at outside center but Apisai Bati was having a handful as it became clear he was being targeted defensively. Some nice kicking from Adam Shockley, playing his first match at first-five in place of the injured Matthew Downer, also had us moving in the direction we wanted early on.
Scrums at the early stage of the match were fairly even but it did not take long before the tight five from Musashino started to show their goods and it was clear they were a tight crew who trained well. Lineouts also started to became a challenge for the Gaijin as the first half wore on; with few of our own throws being taken and only a rare overthrow coming our way on defense. However it was the Gaijin who struck first and they did so through the fast wheels of Ken Kondo out on the left wing. After 15 minutes we were well placed with a ruck on the 10-meter line when the ball was whipped out and passed through the line to Jo Iwasaki who stood in a tackle to offload to Yoichi Ohira coming into the line from fullback. Yoichi also stood strong in his tackle and allowed the overlap for Ken Kondo to run on to, though he still had to beat the covering fullback and it was to a loud chorus of applause from a record number of Gaijin supporters that he dived over in the far corner. It was a fine try and one well required after a long spell in Musashino territory. The TGRFC were up 5-0.
It did not take long for the opposition to come back. Repeated offences at the breakdown from Gaijin forwards who could not fathom the referee's interpretation of the laws led to penalty after penalty and the Gaijin could not find their rhythm. Musashino were let back into the match and scored an easy try from a scrum feed from 30 meters out in a perfectly executed back line move: skip pass to the outside center running on to the ball at pace and getting around his tackler to set up his winger in the corner. They converted and – when considering the increasing problems at set piece time – the game had turned. 5-7 to Musashino.
It was to be Musashino Ruggers who scored next. This time they were able to drive closer and closer to our line and eventually squeeze through a gap to score. Suddenly we were down 5-14 and in desperate need of some fight back.
Down by a converted try and struggling in their own set piece play, the Gaijin had to work hard. With the forwards sucking in defenders on the right flank but not threatening to break through, the ball was sent out to the centers where Bati was well contained by two defenders rushing up. The ball came quickly from the ruck though and it continued it's way to the left side of the field with Ken Kondo and Yoichi Ohira featuring to draw defenders and a final quick pass from Ken to Hitoshi Chihara, saw Hitoshi stretch his legs and beat the cover defence to the corner for another fine try. A conversion from Adam Shockley allowed the Gaijin to go off at halftime only slightly behind on the scoreboard with the score at 12-14, the Gaijin down by a conversion.
The second half required a more disciplined effort when dealing with the referee who was happy to blow his whistle at anything to keep control of the game. In all he blew up 35 penalties; 19 of them against the Gaijin. It was becoming clear that the Gaijin were making strong inroads through their ball carrying and quick recycling from the ruck and that was how they got in to score their third try to regain the lead. In the build up, Chris Fearon switched from hooker to half back in the lineout and took the ball off the top, charged out behind the shortened lineout and smashed his way through a number of would be tacklers. From half way the Gaijin surged forward with Joe Fisher taking the ball up strongly and Mark "Kevin" Armstrong making huge ground with his ferocious style of running. Garrett Washington also worked hard, while Murray Clarke, Dave Kelver and Sean O'Donoghue supported them to recycle the ball. After several lost chances from the set piece the Gaijin finally worked their way back into the opposition half and Joe Fisher again crashed up with his crew in support. Clarke picked up a loose ball and had a sniff at the line, but it was Fisher who picked and went back infield off the side of the ruck to crash through two tacklers and get a grain of chalk on the ball. It was enough for the referee and the Gaijin were back in the lead, looking dominant. 17-14.
As quickly as they did in the first half though, Musashino Ruggers came back. From the kickoff Joffa Harris took an angled run up field and looked to have beaten the defense. As the cover came across he attempted to lob the ball over two defenders to Jo Iwasaki and his winger who were unmarked. Unfortunately the ball was intercepted and only last ditch defense saved a try. From the next scrum the Musashino No 8 quickly gave the ball to their halfback who had Hitoshi Chihara in two minds – take the half or take the wing. The halfback then passed it to the winger who got on the outside of Chihara and beat the covering Joffa Harris to the corner. This one was converted and Musashino were suddenly up with the score at 17-21 in their favor.
With time running down the Gaijin were scrambling and both sides were running on fumes. The pace and intensity of the game was taking it's toll as both sides had players down with cramps and injuries. Reserves from both sides came in and for the Gaijin, Erin Hughes came in to the second row for the final stages of battle. The Gaijin forwards kept their quick recycling game going and made great progress but had to make do with limited possession. Again, the set pieces were failing them as they struggled in the scrum and at lineout time, which is usually a strength of theirs.
It was Bati Apisai who made the next play. An intercept from close in to a ruck at the half way mark had Bati scrambling with the last of his energy to beat the full back and center who chased him all the way to the right hand corner. Watching from behind the ruck I recall my initial reaction was a quick prayer, willing him to win the match for us. He scored and the Gaijin knew they had to fight hard to close the final 4 minutes of the game out up 22-21.
The restart came and the Gaijin backs took the ball to half way. Play went right and the forwards turned the ball over for a Musashino scrum. They got the ball out quickly and immediately launched a backline attack. As they had done all game they executed it well, though they were lucky to slip a tackle and break through in midfield. The Gaijin defense scrambled but it was too late. With too many chasers to defend, the ball went out to their speedster wing who ran the try in taking Musashino up 22-26.
The Gaijin had all of 30 seconds from the restart and that was the game. Heartbreaking as it was, it was a fantastic game to be part of and for the lead to change as it did it was an exciting, tense match for those on the sidelines. The Gaijin would end this season as Second Division Runners Up.
Adam Shockley was a deserved Man of the Match. Despite only getting 1 from 4 shots at goal he had directed the team well around the field in his first full game at standoff in the absence of Matt Downer. Shockley had also kicked intelligently in general play.
The Gaijin set piece play had let them down and I strongly suspect that on another day, fixing the few things they did poorly, they would win that game. But such is life and that is how the game goes. Congratulations to Musashino Ruggers as they clearly put a huge effort in on the training ground and have made huge improvements since we played them last. As their Captain explained in the post-match speech this was what they had worked for two years to achieve, training hard with a devotion to their club. A number of their players were overcome with emotion at the end and it was a surprise to see the tears in their eyes. I can't say that we will ever train as much as they do nor have that passion throughout the club, but we can still be proud of our achievements.
Thanks to all the supporters who came out to watch us in the final. It is only regrettable that we could not win it. Fortunately the team still has a chance to go up to First Division as they now go onto play against the second last place finishers in the First Division.
SCORE: Musahino Ruggers 26 (4 tries, 3 conversions) TGRFC 22 (K.Kondo 1, H.Chihara 1, J.Fisher 1, A. Bati 1, A. Shockley 1/4 conversions)
MAN OF THE MATCH: Adam Shockley
GOAT OF MATCH: Joffa Harris (for that intercept pass)
MASTER GOAT: Will Thompson (a starting member who turned up to late to actually play the match)
1. Joe Fisher (New Zealand)
2. Chris Fearon (New Zealand)
3. Takayuki Kitajima (Japan)
4. Murray Clarke (New Zealand)
5. Sean O`Donoghue (Ireland)
6. Garrett Washington (USA)
7. Paulo de Berriozabal (Basque)
8. Joffa Harris (Australia)
9. Alaister Nimmo (England)
10. Adam Shockley (USA)
11. Hitoshi Chihara (Japan)
12. Jo Iwasaki (Japan)
13. Apisai Bati (Fiji)
14. Ken Kondo (Japan)
15. Yoichi Ohira (Japan)
16. Gaz Dalrymple (Scotland)
17. Erin Hughes (USA)
18. Mark ‘Kev’ Armstrong (France)
19. Dave Kelver (USA)
20. So Nagashima (Japan)
21. Lawrence Hii (Australia)
22. Andy Ballard (England)