For those of you who don't follow the more "obscure" sports, the Rugby World Cup begins in New Zealand on September 9th. I say obscure with not a small amount of sarcasm because rugby is far more popular worldwide than it's most obvious counterpart, American football. There are 20 national squads contesting the upcoming tournament, although only three or four have a reasonable chance at winning the whole thing, chief among these being the hosts, the All Blacks.
Before the tournament kicks off though, there are a few friendlies that are held in various venues around the world. Fortunately for me, one of those venues was Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium in Tokyo, where the Japanese national team hosted the Americans on a wet Sunday evening.
I've talked about the stadium before so won't go into detail here. Despite the wet weather and few covered seats, over 12,000 fans came out to cheer on their Brave Blossoms (yeah, the Japanese really need to rethink their team nicknames) take on the Eagles.
The game was barely five minutes old when Japanese centre Alisi Tupuailei (a Samoan by birth) took a beautiful switch pass at the American 10 metre line and rambled nearly 40 metres (study your rugby field if you think this is a typo) before passing to Taihei Ueda who completed the attack with an easy try. The kick was botched leaving the Japanese with an early 5-0 lead.
In rugby, the team that has been scored upon kicks off to restart the game, and the Americans did just that. The Japanese were still in awe of their quick score though, and nobody thought to field the ball. Kevin Swiryn waltzed on in, picked up the ball without being touched and raced for one of the easiest tries you will ever see. The kick was converted and the US had quickly taken the lead, 7-5 before 10 minutes had even elapsed.
Japan quickly pressed when they regained possession and were rewarded with a penalty goal just a minute later to make it 8-7. It looked like a high-scoring game was in store, but then the rain started to fall, as did the players (above).
With the conditions slick, ball handling was an issue and knock-ons became a far too regular happening. Neither team could develop any flow and the last 30 minutes of the first half were destined to be scoreless, until the Japanese fumbled the ball straight to Swiryn who picked it up and again found himself with an open path to the try line. It seemed an instant replay of the Americans' first score, right down to the conversion, and the half ended with the US up 14-8.
The rain had tapered off when the two sides emerged for the second stanza, and Japan showed far better defense for these 40 minutes, rarely allowing the US within a few metres of the goal. Of course, I happened to be sitting on this side, so most of the action was at the other end of the field. The Japanese finally broke through in the 14th minute when Takashi Kikutani took an pass and brushed off Swiryn's weak tackle to score a well-deserved try. The kick was good and the Japanese had the lead for the third time, 15-14.
Just over ten minutes later, the Japanese took advantage of some very sloppy tackling to add on another try from Takehisa Usuzuki to extend their lead to 20-14. But the kick was missed and the US had ten minutes left in which they had to get a converted try to win. There would be no draw here, an unconverted try would leave the Japanese with a 1-point victory, while a converted on would give the visitors the win, again by a point.
The Americans certainly gave it their all, getting within 10 metres with just a minute to go (below). It was actually pretty exciting, but just after the horn sounded, they fumbled the ball, resulting in a game-ending knock-on, a suitable way to finish for the Yanks, who made it close by scoring two gimme tries but were otherwise outclassed, particularly in the second half. For those interested, here are the highlights.
Despite the conditions, this was an entertaining event. The home fans were overjoyed as the victory provides a good boost for the Brave Blossoms before they head to the southern hemisphere for the World Cup. Unfortunately they play 2 very strong teams in New Zealand and France, with Tonga and Canada filling out group A and perhaps giving the Japanese a chance at a win or two. It will be fun to watch, so I encourage you who have yet to watch a rugby game to try to follow the tournament starting next month.
The next month will see me take in two more NPB games for Stadium Journey, but not much else. I've pretty much exhausted new venues in Tokyo, but hope to be traveling elsewhere in Japan shortly to report on a number of different events around the country. Stay tuned!