Japan edged the USA 20-14 in the final pre-World Cup warmup for both teams Sunday evening at Prince Chichubu Stadium in a heavy rain.
Both teams ran out less than full-strength sides as they tried to test a few more players just a few hours before the announcement of their final World Cup squads. And both teams struggled with the wet ball on a rainy evening, but in the end Japan won by being just a little bit better at the breakdown, and because the USA’s lineout was not hitting.
The Eagles, playing without injured captain Todd Clever, continued to encounter difficulty making real inroads into a defense, running multiple phases multiple times where they didn’t make any ground.
With time up and the Eagles down six, the Americans had one more shot. A series of pick-and-jams by the forwards inched them toward the line, but a knock-on in the ruck ended the match.
The Eagles kicked off and charged into the fray with energy, forcing a knock-on at Japan’s initial touch. From that scrum the Eagles got their wings involved early and ran seven phases, but failed to gain much and eventually kicked into space.
Still the Americans pressed and use their forwards and backs equally. The Japan defense held.
Japan looked content to defend, and when they finally got the ball, they looked very dangerous. A switch in the centers put Alisi Tupuailei through and he linked with fullback Tahei Ueda for the try. Japan were up 5-0 and looked like if they got more ball, they could run up a huge score.
But the Eagles replied right off the restart. No Japanese claimed the ball and wing Kevin Swiryn raced in to pick it up and sprint to the line. Nese Malifa hit the difficult conversion and the USA led 7-5.
Japan scored immediately. Tai Enosa was cruelly called for an obstruction call, and center Ryan Nichols hit the penalty for an 8-7 Japanese lead.
Japan had another big scoring chance later in the half. Tupuailei broke through again – this time off a loose lineout – and was just stopped. With Japan on the line Paul Emerick, who had a terrific game in all aspects, was called for interfering with the scrumhalf from the ground. He was lucky not to be yellow-carded. Japan opted for a scrum, and superb tackles from Pat Danahy and Scott LaValla stole the ball and relieved pressure.
The Eagles had weathered a difficult period, marked by some uncharacteristic handling errors by scrumhalf and captain Mike Petri. But the rest of the USA team weren’t helping themselves, kicking won scrum ball onto the Japan side, and losing their lineout through what appeared to be mistimed jumps.
With the wet ball making first-receivers take their time catching the ball, there were several charge-downs. One put the USA on attack, but a knock-on by Malifa stopped that. Malifa was also charged down, but he tackled Nasoki Kawamate right after to force a drop.
Japan appeared to score with about ten minutes left in the half, as they ran a loop move off the back of the scrum. Debutant James Paterson, Lou Stanfill and LaValla were all there to make tackles, and while Tadusuke Nishihara dove over to touch down, he was penalized, possibly for not releasing. The USA dodged a bullet and soon made Japan pay with about two minutes left.
The Japanese had the ball but after a knock-on near one touchline, Paterson somehow made the ball available for his teammates. Stepping in as scrumhalf, Paterson passed to fullback Blaine Scully, who lofted a kick into midfield. Japan worked a switch move on counter, but Emerick came flying in; his tackle taking out both passer and receiver. The ball spilled loose. Prop Mike MacDonald, making his record-equaling 62nd appearance for the USA, nudged the ball with his foot over to Swiryn, who happily gathered it up and ran 48 meters to score.
The Eagles led 14-8 at halftime thanks in large part to two broken plays, and the play of Emerick, who had as good a 40 minutes at inside center as any Eagle has had in recent memory.
But the second half did not hold the promise of the first. Japan were far better at the breakdown in the second half and hit the rucks with ferocity. This gave them continuity, and prevented the Eagles from turning the ball over.
When they did have the ball, the Americans could not make big breaks, and their lineout still struggled.
Nic Johnson came on at halftime to replace a hurting Hayden Smith. Johnson moved to No. 8 and was outstanding, until he, too, had to leave due to injury. Ryan Chapman ended the game at No. 8.
The Eagles could have extended their lead early in the second half. Emerick dove over the ruck to disrupt the pass from scrumhalf, and from the turnover Malifa kicked ahead for Paterson. The wing raced in to boot the ball toward the tryline, but he was a hair too late, and the ball had rolled into touch.
Then Japan saw a chance go begging. Malifa’s clearance kick off his left foot doesn’t find touch, and Japan counters well, especially after Paterson blitzes ineffectually. Scully made it back in time to stop a try.
Stuck in their own end, the Eagles held the line for a good eight minutes.
But finally, the inevitable happened. A series of phases made it a walk for captain and No. 8 Takashi Kikutani. Webb’s conversion made it 15-14.
Japan almost made it 20-14 as wing Hirotoki Onozawa scampered behind three of his teammates. No obstruction call here, but Phil Thiel made a huge tackle at the line.
Moments later, Paul Emerick made a tackle, poached the ball, and was off and running. He would have been fully away but was just forced to step on the touchline. Another almost-try.
Japan extended their lead at 69 minutes, when a block in midfield allowed them to break through. Paterson was pushed aside and wing .Takehashi Uszuki made it just ahead of Scully’s tackle. 20-14.
The Eagles had three more chances to score, with their best being a lineout in the Japanese 22 that they lost, and compounded it when sub scrumhalf Tim Usasz was in from the side.
Finally, they looked like they might get the try they needed at the end, but the wet ball didn’t stay to hand.
In the end, the Eagles had to have left feeling as if they put in an effort. They defended well except for a couple of lapses out wide, and didn’t give up when they were on their line. Petri recovered from some early scary moments to play extremely well, and in open play 62-capper MacDonald, Thiel, LaValla and Stanfill were standouts in the forwards.
Paul Emerick was brilliant, and Blaine Scully continues to play better and better. Kevin Swiryn had his best game in a while, while Tai Enosa had some great moments and some not-so-great. On debut, wing James Paterson never got the ball with a head of steam up, but got involved a great deal and really only had one major error.
The USA forwards defended the maul exceptionally well, got better at the scrum, which generally just held on.
The Eagles could have done much better, though, had they been able to win their lineouts consistently. Too many balls went over the top. And the forwards were generally beaten at the rucks in the latter part of the match. Japan made a few subs, and the Eagles suffered a couple of injuries, but it was speed and technique at the breakdown which won the game for Japan.
Tries: Swiryn 2
Convs: Malifa 2
Tries: Ueda, Kikutani, Usuzuki
1.Mike MacDonalf, 2. Phil Thiel (Chris Biller, 3. Eric Fry (Shawn Pittman), 4. Scott LaValla, 5. Hayden Smith (Nic Johnson) (Ryan Chapman), 6. Pat Danahy, 7. Lou Stanfill, 8. JJ Gagiano, 9. Mike Petri (capt) (Tim Usasz) , 10. Nese Malifa (Roland Suniula), 11. Kevin Swiryn, 12. Paul Emerick (Andrew Suniula), 13. Tai Enosa, 14. James Paterson, 15. Blaine Scully
1. Naoski Kawamate, 2. Yusuke Aoki, 3. Nozomu Fujita, 4. Hitoshi Ono, 5. Luke Thompson, 6. Sione Vatuvei, 7. Tadusuke Nishihara, 8. Takashi Kikutani, 9. Tomoki Yoshida, 10. Murray Williams, 11. Hirotoki Onozawa 12. Ryan Nicholas 13. Alisi Tupuailei 14.Takehashi Uszuki15. Taihei Ueda
Ref: Jerome Garces (France
Asst. Referees: Teagarden (USA, Koda (Japan), Tubo (Japan)