Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Pearl Bowl - Fujitsu Frontiers 15 vs Obic Seagulls 13 - July 1, 2010


It's Canada Day! What better way to celebrate than to go watch American football in Japan? A friend of mine had free tickets to the Pearl Bowl, a pre-season championship game in the X League, Japan's answer to the NFL. I'm not one to pass on a free sporting event, so I headed off to the Tokyo Dome to catch the action.

The X League

Formed in 1971 as the Japan American Football League, the X League took its current moniker in 1997. There are 60 teams divided into 4 leagues: X (18 teams in 3 divisions); X2 (18 teams in 3 divisions); X3 (19 teams in 3 divisions); and X4 (5 teams in 1 division). Every year teams are promoted and relegated between these separate leagues. The regular season starts in October and teams in X only play 5 games against the teams in their division. Then playoffs are held between the top teams in each division in the league with the winners going on to meet in the Japan X Bowl in December. The X League Champion then plays the college champion in the Rice Bowl to end the season.

Like the industrial league in baseball, teams are either sponsored by a company that uses its "employees" as players, or a local club for which anyone can try out.

The Pearl Bowl

The Pearl Bowl is a tournament that involves the 12 teams in the top league's Eastern and Central division. The teams are divided into 4 blocks of 3 with each block holding a small round-robin. The 4 champs then meet in the semi finals with the winners going on to meet in the Pearl Bowl.

With the regular season not starting until October, this tournament is used to evaluate players and so can be considered a pre-season event, although it takes 2 full months to complete.

The Teams

The Obic Seagulls are sponsored by OBIC, a Tokyo-based firm that does system integration among other technical services. The team finished 4-1 last season for 2nd place in the East but they have moved to the Central Division for the upcoming campaign. They won their 3 qualifying games by a combined score of 152-14 so it would seem like they were the favourites coming in.

The Fujitsu Frontiers went 5-0 to take the Central Division in 2009 but lost in the Japan X Bowl to the Kashima Deers. After winning their two block games by a combined 100-16 score, they again faced the Deers, coming away with a 20-17 victory to reach the final.

The Game


I wasn't expecting a huge turnout for this game, but I was wrong. Over 14,000 people made the trip to the Dome with most being supporters of one of the teams. Our tickets were from some of the Obic players so we had to sit on the first base side. For the first half we sat low but the view wasn't that good (the netting wasn't removed for the game as you can see above), it was very crowded and hot, and the cheerleaders were extremely annoying, so for the second half we moved to the outfield seats which offered a better perspective.

The game was much like a scoreless World Cup match that goes to penalty kicks: boring for most of it with all the action near the end. The Seagulls managed two field goals in the first quarter, but Fujitsu replied with two of their own in the second and one more in the third to take a 9-6 lead.

Things finally got interesting late in the 3rd when Obic's Masatoshi Sugihara scampered for a 44-yard touchdown which gave them a 13-9 lead after the conversion.

The first play of the 4th was an impressive tip and interception by Obic DL Mitsunori Kihira, which stopped a promising Fujitsu drive. But Obic couldn't capitalise and the teams traded possessions with neither able to threaten another score.


Ball carrier tackled for no gain - a common occurrence


With less than 6 minutes to go, Obic was driving but a fumble deep in Frontier territory ended that chance. Fujitsu then failed on their ensuing drive, losing the ball when a 4th down run was stuffed at the line. With just over 4 minutes to go, the game was now Obic's for the taking as one first down would allow them to kill the clock, but they went 3-and-out and were forced to punt.


After a decent punt return, Fujitsu had the ball near midfield with just 1:35 left. After two quick first downs gained 30 yards, quarterback Akihiro Izuhara lofted a ball to the corner of the end zone where Daiki Matsubayashi made a great catch for the score. From where I was sitting, I could see the play developing and it was cool to watch as the ball went up well before Matsubayashi had made his turn. When he finally did look back, the ball was there and he held on for the 20-yard touchdown with 1:12 to go.

With the score 15-13, common sense would dictate that you tack on the extra point but Frontiers' coach Satoshi Fujita went for the 2-point conversion to try to seal the game. But the attempt failed and after a good kickoff return, Obic had a chance to drive into field goal range. A personal foul by the Frontiers moved the Seagulls to the Fujitsu 33-yard line, barely in range for a field goal attempt. After a couple of runs to get a bit closer, kicker Yosuke Kaneoya came out to try a 48-yard attempt with just 6 seconds left. The kick was up and .....fell well short of the uprights. Game over, the Frontiers hold on to win the 2010 Pearl Bowl.

The missed FG

What had been a dull contest for the first 45 minutes turned out to be interesting near the end, helped by some poor coaching and a lack of discipline by Fujitsu. You might think the score showed a strong defensive battle, but in reality both teams were not that good on offense.

Most of the plays were options or quarterback draws. Looking at the stats, Fujitsu had 64 plays of which 47 were runs, very few of the traditional handoff variety. With an average gain of exactly 3 yards, it wasn't a successful strategy and they finally opted for the pass when time was running out. Obic had 48 plays, split evenly between the ground and the air. There were also 17 penalties in the game which served to slow things down a bit.

Even then, the game moved quickly with so many running plays and few incompletions. There's also less clock stoppages than you would see in the NFL, with no two-minute warning here. It took 2:45 and would have been quicker except for a spate of injuries in the 4th quarter.

Overall, a fun experience but not one that requires repeating.

Thoughts

It amazes me that there are 60 football teams in this country. Though I think they could do with some tougher names; the Deers and Seagulls don't inspire a lot of fear.

The Tokyo Dome is not a good place to watch football. First, the field stretches from home plate to the center field fence, so there are few good seats. Second, they don't remove the netting which ruins the seats close to the field. Third, it's the Tokyo Dome.


I mentioned the cheerleaders were annoying. After every play they would do a song and dance regardless of the situation on the field. The head girl had a mike into which she would yell "Defense! Defense!" or "Let's Go Seagulls". The Obic fans would duly cheer along. Then they would suddenly stop and turn around to watch the next play. It was fun to watch at the beginning and their energy was admirable, but it quickly became loud and tiresome. There was also a stupid mascot which looked nothing like a seagull.


The Fujitsu cheerleaders weren't much better, holding up the letters to spell "Touchdown" as their team lined up for a field goal.

However, at halftime, the other cheerleaders in the league put on a show. There must have been at least a hundred of them and they really got into it. At one point they had a line that formed from one goal line to the other and it was pretty impressive as they kicked up in unison.


I might try to see a game at one of the other grounds this fall, just to see what it is like. But the quality here isn't that good and I don't think I'll be following this league that closely in the future.

Next Up

I'm off to the Minneapolis and Iowa trip in a week! Lots of baseball on tap so check back then for regular updates. Not much to see before that though, but I'll have some posts on the World Cup and the comparison of game stats between Japanese ball and the majors, so look for those in the next few days as well.

Best,

Sean

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