Monday, August 22, 2011

USA 14 at Japan 20 - Rugby Friendly

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.

Next Up

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!



Sunday, August 14, 2011

Mediocrity in Japanese Baseball

I've been quiet for a while for a couple of reasons. One is that I wanted to leave the Japanese women winning the World Cup post on top for a few weeks, the other is that the good feelings from that event left me happy about sports for nearly a month. But as time passed, those happy memories have slowly faded and I've returned to my grumpy sports fan self.

As usual, the target of my rancor is the NPB. Check out these standings below (lifted directly from the NPB's website):

Central League

Pacific League

Some things to note:
Out of 12 teams, only three are above .500.
Yakult has 12 ties out of just 88 games, so they are leading the league despite winning less than half of their contests.
The third place team in both leagues would make the playoffs despite being below .500.
Only Yokohama is out of the playoff race.

So what is my point? First, this is probably the most parity I have seen in the Japanese leagues since I moved here in 1996. But more importantly, it is how all but two teams are mediocre and how this is actually bad for the game.

Many will argue that it is great that 11 squads have playoff aspirations with a third of the season left, but I can't agree with that. Maybe more fans are more into the end of season games, but I believe that in baseball, it is a division or league pennant that matters. It is a sport that takes a long time to decide the best teams, who should then meet in a playoff. In the Pacific League, instead of a compelling race between two clubs playing great ball, we get a snoozer between 4 crappy teams that can't win half of their games. The Central League is somewhat closer, but this is because all the teams are pretty average. It would be much more interesting to see if one of those trailing teams could catch Yakult, rather than have 4 of them battle for two spots.

The situation is similar to the Wild Card in MLB, where the Red Sox and Yankees are both going to make the playoffs, rendering their AL East pennant race meaningless. But at least those two teams are among the best in baseball and will have their excellence rewarded; in Japan, mediocrity will be rewarded with a playoff spot and a chance at an undeserved title.

As MLB debates realignment and an extra playoff team, they should cast a glance over the Pacific to see how watering down the playoffs might make the regular season less meaningful rather than more.



Update: This post serves as an example of what can happen in a short time in baseball. First, Boston collapsed and didn't make the playoffs. In Japan, Seibu went from last to third to secure a playoff spot at the expense of Orix, while Chunichi went wild and took top spot in the CL, knocking out Hanshin.