Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Rugby World Junior Championship - Match Day 2 - June 9, 2009

One of the benefits of living in Tokyo is being able to see a wide variety of world championships every year. A few months ago, I discovered that the World Junior Rugby Championship would be held in Japan, with Tokyo hosting one of the groups as well as the semi-finals and finals. I placed the games on my schedule and promptly forgot about it, and didn't notice much in the way of advertising in the meantime. But that was likely because I don't watch much televised rugby, because when I arrived at the stadium yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised to find over 5,000 fans on hand for the 5:00 kickoff between England and Scotland. By the time Japan took on Samoa, the total had reached 10,693, a great crowd and clearly evidence of why Japan gets to host these events - with such a dense population, you can count on plenty of fans, regardless of your sport.

Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium

Located next to the Jingu Baseball Stadium, the Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium is a simple venue right in the middle of the teeming metropolis. Seating capacity is just over 25,000, although at one end there are no seats, just a section for standing which makes the official capacity 27,188. The seats themselves are just plastic with no back, so it can get uncomfortable after a while. The field is natural grass and kept in good shape. There is a large scoreboard over the west end of the field which shows replays and the lineups; it was added in 2003. Lights were also added in 2007 to allow for night games, in the hopes of securing the 2015 World Cup of Rugby. Like most older stadiums in Japan, Chichibu Memorial is functional but not particularly aesthetically pleasing. Still, it's good to have this facility in the center of the city, and I'll start to visit it more often as I try to understand rugby a bit better.

The Rugby World Junior Championship

This is the second year of the tournament which is held annually and features 16 international teams with all players under 20 years of age. Last year's champ was New Zealand, who defeated England 38-3 in the final, held in Wales. The 16 teams are divided into 4 pools of 4 for a 3-game round robin. The playoffs are a knockout format, with each pools first-place teams in one group, the second-place teams in another, and so on. In this way, all places from 1st to 16th will be decided. There are 5 cities hosting the event in Japan, pool B features England, Scotland, Samoa, and Japan and is being held in Tokyo. The semi-finals and finals will also be held here. There are 4 days between each match day, and all pools have their matches on the same day. The tournament opened on June 5th, and today's games were the 2nd match for each side. I should note that there was a sign saying that cameras were prohibited in the stands, but I did manage to take a few shots posted here.

England 30 Scotland 7

The first match featured a couple of squads from the British Isles, and although both had their supporters in the stands, only England seemed to use it as motivation. Tom Homer booted an early penalty from near midfield, which brought cheers of appreciation from the knowledgeable crowd. England added to their lead with a try when Charlie Sharples picked up a bobbled pass and raced the length of the field; after the conversion by Homer it was 10-0. Scotland had their chances, but their handling was atrocious, every time they drew near the try line, they fumbled the ball or lost possession. England had no such problems, adding another converted try and penalty before halftime, and two more tries in the second half for a 30-0 lead. Only a last-second try saved Scotland from being shutout, which brought shouts of joy from their fans. It wasn't a very good game as Scotland were never in it; certainly England seem to be the class of this group.

Samoa 29 Japan 20

Twenty minutes after the first game finished, it was time for the host nation to take on Samoa. Samoa rushed out to an early lead with a try in the 5th minute, but Japan responded with some great passing to tie the game at 5. Unfortunately, that was all for them in the half, as Samoa dominated the next half-hour with two more tries and a penalty for a 22-5 halftime lead.

Japan did not give up though, and scored their second try off a rolling maul. This is when, after a maul is set up, the team in possession passes the ball backwards to the player at the rear, who then rolls off the side of the maul trying to advance the ball. When played close to the opponents goal, it is a good way to score a try as it can be difficult to defend a properly executed rolling maul. In fact, the Samoans found this out twice more, as Japan added two more tries in much the same way, forcing the maul close to the goal line and then having the last man run the ball into the end zone. It really surprised me how the lighter Japanese side was able to push the Samoans seemingly at will, it was clear that they were technically a superior side when in close. Unfortunately, Samoa did manage another try of their own in the second half, against the run of play and this proved too much for the Japanese to overcome. Each team scored 4 tries, but Samoa converted 3 of theirs while Japan missed every conversion. These 6 points plus the early penalty were the difference as Samoa held on for a 29-20 win. This was a fun game to watch, I appreciated the different styles of the two teams, and the crowd was really good, cheering their team on, disappointed at the loss but respecting the opposition's efforts.

(The IRB site has a more detailed report on these games for those who are interested.)

The Samoan haka, which is when the team all farts together

With Samoa and England both winning their first two matches, they will face off on Saturday for first place in the pool, with the winner advancing to the semi-finals. Those games will be held next week, and I'll be going to see them as well. I expect that the rugby will be much better and I'll report on those games then.



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