IRB Pacific Nations CUP
By Rich Freeman in Yokohama
Tonga got their IRB Pacific Nations Cup 2013 campaign off to a winning start when they beat Japan 27-17 at the Nippatsu Mitsuzawa Stadium in Yokohama on Saturday.
In the first ever Test match in the city where rugby was first played in Japan, the visitors ran in four tries to prevent the hosts from setting a new national record of seven straight Test victories.
“We knew Japanese rugby is all about speed and fitness and that they would try to run us off our feet,” said Tonga captain Nili Latu. “I am really proud of the boys, especially the way we defended. We knew it was going to be a big challenge given we’ve only had two days training. The big difference was we really wanted to win.”
The Brave Blossoms came into the match as the reigning HSBC Asian 5 Nations champions, but the increased physicality from the side lying 11th in the IRB World Rankings – four above Japan – had them in trouble from the start.
A mistake from the kick-off gave Tonga ideal field position and a couple of missed tackles in the fifth minute allowed the visitors to create an overlap for Fetuu Vainikolo, who crossed in the corner.
Breaking the habit
Japan were trying to play at pace but Tonga were able to slow the ball down at the breakdown, with Hale T-Pole and Latu prominent.
Vainikolo added a second seven minutes after his first after T-Pole ripped the ball from Yoshikazu Fujita at the breakdown – not the last time Japan lost the ball in contact. Fangatapu Apikotoa added the extras as Tonga led 12-0.
To their credit, Japan stuck to their guns and a great break by Hendrik Tui almost saw Male Sa’u go over in the 18th minute. Sa’u was unable to touch down but it set up the field position from which Takeshi Kizu powered over two minutes later.
The five-pointer marked the 50th straight Test Japan have crossed their opponents’ line. The Tongans hit back quickly though with a penalty from Apikotoa as Japan once again were penalised at the breakdown.
Even up a man after Tonga number 8 Paula Kaho was sent to the bin, Japan still struggled at the breakdown, and a clever kick ahead saw Will Helu score the visitor’s third try in the 36th minute. Apikotoa kicked the conversion from out wide as Tonga went into the break leading 22-5.
“We played the first half like we had a hangover,” said Japan coach Eddie Jones. “We were still playing like we were playing Asian rugby. Tonga were coming at us in attack and defence and we just sat back. It’s a habit we have to get out of.”
Slowing the ball down
Japan needed a score early on to stay in the match and it came just two minutes into the second half. Running the ball from their own line, Michael Broadhurst made a great break through the Tongan midfield. Takashi Kikutani carried the movement on and then fed Sa’u who went over to make it 22-10.
But the hard work was again undone as Japan struggled to retain the ball at the restart. Tonga made the most of the gift with Eddie Aholelei going over in the corner as the crowd suddenly went very quiet.
Tonga’s defence was well organised – a tribute to the work put in by Dave Ellis – and Japan struggled to put any phases together.
Hendrik Tui finally powered over in the 65th minute after a prolonged period of pressure and Ayumu Goromaru added the extras as Japan closed to 27-17, but that was to be the end of the scoring.
“Our main focus was on our one-on one defence,” said Tonga coach Mana 'Otai. “And from there we were able to slow the Japan ball down.”
The opening round continues on Saturday when Canada host neighbours USA in Edmonton. Japan will have the chance to bounce back when they face Fiji in Lautoka on 1 June with Tonga next in action a week later against Canada.
The Pacific Nations Cup 2013 matches will be streamed live on www.irb.com. Click here for more information.