06 May 2017

Hong Kong held Japan to its narrowest margin of victory in the Asia Rugby Championship era (since 2008) after a 29-17 away loss today in Tokyo. Hong Kong led the match at the midway point of both halves today as they ran Japan closer than at any point since the Pacific Rim championship matches of the late 1990s.

Despite holding their customary position at the top of the table, Japan has looked disjointed in this campaign, running out three largely new sides in the opening three rounds.After conceding their first ever bonus point to an Asian rival since 2008 - against Korea in week one, Japan were nearly upended by a tenacious Hong Kong today at Chichubunomiya stadium.

Ahead of today’s tie, Hong Kong coach Leigh Jones had demanded a big performance from his forwardsand largely got what he asked for after his starting eight blunted Japan’s attack for the first hour.

The front row of props Dylan Rogers – who had a standout performance on his international debut, and Ben Higgins and captain and hooker Ben Roberts helped set a strong platform for the visitors who won all 14 of their scrums today while taking one against the head.

“Dylan deservesspecial mention, along with the rest of the front row and the pack early on. That was the first time that we’ve managed to set a solid platform like that in three or four seasons and our scrum held up well,” said Jones.

“We’ve only been professional for 18 months and are making real strides now, that’s evident. There’s still a lot of potential in this squad and if we can continue to make those kind of strides over the next 18 months, matches like today’s will start to go our way,” Jones added.

The only blur on Hong Kong’s copybook came late in the gamewhen the pack lost shape after substitutions to the front row stymied Hong Kong’s chances to complete a late comeback. That late dip in form left Jones frustrated.

“It was a game we could have won and I’m a bit annoyed at myself in terms of my substitutions. The

timings were right, but the subs didn’t have the expected impact and we lost our shape. We were leading with 20 minutes to go and let it slip. We can’t afford to let that happen,” Jones noted.

Hong Kong had a shaky start- being pinned in its own half for the first ten minutesas unforced errors in both handling andkicking opened the door for a Japan try in the second minute as they took a 7-0 lead.

But Hong Kong’s forwards regrouped to slow Japan at the breakdown, taking what the hosts gave them through their own unforced errors as they clawed back into the game.

In the 17th minute, Japan were made to pay for repeated infringing as lock Samuel Anise was sent to the sin bin. Hong Kong scored 10 points with the man advantage after a penalty from scrumhalf Jamie Hood and a 27th minute try from Salom Yiu Kam-shing.

Yiu timed his run off his wing perfectly, entering the line on an attacking line-out to claima nifty inside pass from fly-half Matt Rosslee, who had a sterling performance before coming off late due to injury. Yiu smashed through Japan’s interior defence and flashed away for a try beneath the posts with Hood’s conversion giving Hong Kong its first lead, 10-7.

That lead held until the dying minutes of the half as both sides began tiring. Japan capitalized on the gaps appearing in the visitors’ defence to score in the 39th minute, taking a 12-10 lead into the break.

Hong Kong continued its pressure in the third quarter while Japan’s unforced errors, including an uncharacteristic 16 handling errors, began to mount on their collective consciousness as they reverted to some wild play to try and extend their margin.

Hong Kong were rewarded for their methodical approach with a try in the 58th minute. Seb Alfonsi, celebrating his first cap since 2013,came off his wing to take the ball from the base of an attacking scrum and crash ahead to Japan’s five metres. Hood cleaned up at the back of the ruck and distributed to Rosslee, who showed anotherdeft touch with a backhand offload to onrushing centre Tyler Spitz who dragged a defender over the line. Hood’sconversion gave HongKong a 15-12 lead entering the last quarter.

With both sides throwing everything into what was a surprisingly open contest, it soon became a battle of fitness as both teamsbegan flagging and the coaches turned to their benches. Jones completed hisfront row replacements in the 67th minute with a noticeably negative effect, as Japan quickly reasserted itself at the scrum and Hong Kong’s lineouts took a disastrous turn.

Hong Kongstruggled to manage the swirling windand lost four consecutive lineoutsin the final ten minutes; losing sevenlineoutsin total on the day - the only statistical marker where they failed to better Japan.

Japan levelled the scores soon after, turning the ball over in midfield and shuttling it out wide to winger Akihito Yamada who tight-roped the touch line for his second try. The conversion fell short leaving the scoreat 17-all with ten minutes left.

Despite the efforts of Cado Lee Ka-to and No.8 Thomas Lamboley, both of whom came on to good effect in the second half, Hong Kong never regained its attacking edge and Japan scored late tries throughShota Horie and captain Harumichi Tatakawa to close out the match, 29-17.

“Hats off to Hong Kong, they played very well. They put us under a lot of pressure and it took us a while to react,” said Japan coach Jamie Joseph after the game.

Japan will travel to Hong Kong next week with something to prove after today’s close-run affair. A win next Saturday at Hong Kong Football Club will be enough to secure their eighth straight Asian title. Japan have 15 points after three matches, while Korea have a single bonus point and Hong Kong are yet to get on the board.

Jones managed to cap all five of his debutants today with flanker Phil Whitfield part of the strong forward effort in the first hour; lock Kyle Sullivan and prop Angus Dixon both came on in the second half as did fly-half Robbie Keith who took over from the injured Rosslee late in the match.

For Jones, today’s effort was positive but will mean nothing in next week’s clash:“The boys will no doubt be confident, but an odd performance like this doesn’t mean anything, it’s all about how we back it up next week. We’ve earned their respect today and this performance will focus their minds a bit for next week. They are going to be dangerous and it will be a tough match, which is exactly what we want and need to ensure that we can keep making the strides we are after,” Jones concluded.