Japan and Hong Kong off to winning starts
Japan and Hong Kong made winning starts to their bid to qualify for Rugby World Cup 2015 with comfortable victories over the Philippines and United Arab Emirates respectively in the opening round of the HSBC Asian 5 Nations Top 5.
The Brave Blossoms defied the cold and wet conditions at the Level 5 Stadium in Fukuoka to beat Top 5 newcomers the Philippines 121-0 to set a new A5N record, while Hong Kong overcame the UAE 53-7.
Thirteen different players crossed for Japan’s 18 tries – including all four debutants – as the defending champions’ power and speed proved too much for the Volcanoes on their debut among Asia’s elite nations.
“It was a good performance first up,” said Japan coach Eddie Jones of his side’s 21st bonus-point Top 5 win. “But it’s always difficult to tell given the quality of the opposition. We have been working on getting physically stronger and you saw a little of that today.”
The winning score was the biggest ever in the history of the tournament, the third highest score ever recorded by Japan and the fourth highest in a Rugby World Cup qualifier.
Bryan Habana pace
“Japan are the benchmark in Asian rugby and showed us what it takes to be at that level,” admitted the Philippines coach Jarred Hodges. “They were too big, too strong and too fast.”
Hodges’ team tackled bravely early on, and Japan had players held up over the line on two occasions in the first half, but it was only a matter of time before the floodgates opened.
“We worked very hard for the first 30 minutes,” said Hodges. “But we missed a couple of kicks that could have made it 10-6. After that though Japan played to their strengths. They were a class above.”
Japan ran in six tries in the first half to lead 43-0 at the break before doubling their effort in the second half.
Kenki Fukuoka was one of the debutants to score, the 20-year-old replacement wing touching down with each of his first two touches before turning supplier for another new cap Takuma Asahara.
“He’s got speed. He’s got Bryan Habana pace,” Jones said of the University of Tsukuba student who caught the eye playing for Junior Japan in the IRB Pacific Rugby Cup over the last month. “But that doesn't make him a Test player. But as long as he keeps on learning and focuses on improving then he has the chance to be a very good player.”
Learning a lesson
Male Sa’u, like Fukuoka, also bagged a brace on debut, though Jones thought the centre could have had a few more. “I thought he was very generous to his teammates. He has fitted in very well and gives us a different attacking ability at 13.”
The other players on the scoresheet for Japan were Hitoshi Ono (2), Michael Broadhurst, Ryu Koliniasi Holani (2), Harumichi Tatekawa (2), Shinya Makabe, Hirotoki Onozawa, Masataka Mikami, Ayumu Goromaru, Kensuke Hatakeyama and Yusuke Aoki.
Japan head to Hong Kong next week looking to build on the win, while the Philippines have the week off to regroup.
“I can’t fault the team’s effort,” said Volcanoes captain Michael Letts. “We will learn from that and I can tell you now we will be a completely different side for our next three games.”
The day’s other match between Hong Kong and UAE saw a disjointed effort which left Hong Kong captain Tom McColl and coach Leigh Jones both unhappy. But Hong Kong still accomplished the task at hand, which was to win their opening game in the Top 5.
Hong Kong ran in eight tries as they overcame a spirited UAE outfit, but while the final score might look impressive, the performance was hardly one to write home about as the hosts struggled to put together a cohesive attack and had to mostly feed on the mistakes of their opponents.
“I’m happy with the win but our execution was not up to our standard,” admitted captain McColl. “We didn’t get going until the last 10 minutes of the game and I don’t want to put the blame fully on the conditions.”
High humidity made the ball difficult to handle at the Hong Kong Football Club, resulting in an error-ridden display from both sides. Passes were spilled and the ball was constantly turned over by the Hong Kong forwards who couldn’t string together a number of phases.
Hong Kong led 27-7 at the break and continued to struggle to find their rhythm in the second half. It was only a late spurt, when three tries were scored in the last 10 minutes, that brought respectability to the scoreline.
“It was a disjointed effort from us but it was to be expected. We had a number of new guys playing in the A5N for the first time and we were missing our sevens players, those with the X-factor,” Jones said.
“I’m not happy at all with our performance but we have to give credit to UAE for their nuggety and tough defence which put us under a lot of pressure.”
Yet, the task of winning the opening game was accomplished. It was crucial for Hong Kong to do so and take a giant step towards securing their place in next year’s Top 5 which will determine the Asia 1 qualifier for England 2015.
Plenty of work still to do
With 12 of its Sevens players not being considered for the opening two matches against UAE and Japan, Hong Kong didn’t want to be in a position of needing to win their remaining matches against the Philippines and Korea which sandwich the HSBC Sevens World Series finale in London on May 11-12.
Wing Jonny Rees and centre Stewart Megaw led the try-scoring stakes each with a brace while flanker Matt Lamming, full back McColl, centre Ally Maclay and reserve scrum half Pete McKee also touched down. Fly half Chris McAdam kicked an early penalty and a conversion before he had to leave the field with sore ribs. His place was ably filled by Niall Rowark, who knocked over four more conversions.
UAE coach Duncan Hall admitted that the conditions had affected his players. “Our ball control was poor with the ball like a piece of soap, but we also overplayed a certain type of game (keeping it with the forwards) and under pressure we reverted to type.
“Hong Kong without their Sevens players still did more than enough to win and it was disappointing, for we have come a long way in the last few months. It shows we still have a lot of work to do.”
Round two sees UAE welcome Korea to the Palm Sports Resort in Al Ain on Friday, before Japan and Hong Kong come face to face at the Hong Kong Football Club on Saturday.