28 May 2016

Japan secured the Asia Rugby Championship title in Tokyo on Saturday, defeating Hong Kong 59-17 in a free-flowing encounter.

Hong Kong started strongly and took it to the home side in the opening stages of the match, at one point leading 10-0, but Japan proved far too strong in the end.

Hong Kong coach Leigh Jones was disappointed with his side’s finish after showing such promise early.

“Frustration is probably the word,” he said. “Our inability to sustain or maintain pressure cost us. The group, all of us are in this together, and we’ve got to realise it’s no good having the amount of errors and penalties we had. At this level it is a very costly exercise.”

Hong Kong made a forced change before the match, with Ed Rolston pulling out injured. Jamie Robinson replaced him at outside centre, with Lee Jones taking Robinson’s place on the bench.

Japan’s squad contained a host of changes from its victory last week over South Korea and was also markedly different from the team that took on Hong Kong on May 7. Playmakers Tevita Tatafu and Ryuji Noguchi returned to the side after starting against Hong Kong but not South Korea.

Japan was not quite its usual self in the first 10 minutes, conceding numerous penalties and allowing Hong Kong to continually reset. After a period of resolute defence that saw it stick tackle after tackle, Hong Kong found its feet and began to put Japan on the back foot.

The visitors got on the board first through a penalty to fly-half Ben Rimene and Alex McQueen then looked dangerous in a scything attacking push.

Hong Kong eventually cracked Japan’s defence, with winger Rowan Varty sending lock Adrian Griffiths over. It was the first try scored against Japan in the series and Rimene’s conversion put Hong Kong 10 points up after 20 minutes.

Japan hit the score sheet with a try through lock Naohiro Kotaki only minutes later and continued its resurgence in the lead up to the break, with inside centre Takuya Ishibashi and winger Ataata Moeakiola both crossing.

It was Moeakiola’s first start for the series and he showed plenty of intent throughout, keeping the Hong Kong defence busy.

Ryoto Nakamura had his kicking boot on early, converting all three first-half tries and booting a 40th minute penalty to give Japan a 24-10 half time lead.

“After 20 minutes our guys started dropping off a few tackles,” Jones said. “We just started slipping off and giving Japan a sniff. Players of that quality, if you give them a sniff they are going to take their chances and that turned out to be the case.”

The Brave Blossoms came out flying after the break, with more missed tackles costing Hong Kong as flanker Hiroki Yamamoto scored a try after just two minutes of play.

But there was still some tooth in the Hong Kong attack, as the visitors closed the gap to 14 points after some slick work by Rimene and Ryan Meacheam saw James Cunningham score his first international try.

Japan answered as they often do, unleashing two quick tries - first Ishibashi and then Doga Maeda - to push the score out to 45-17 after 55 minutes. Another try to Moeakiola and a 73rd minute penalty try to Japan saw the scoring finish at 59-17.

Nakamura nailed another five conversions to take his tally to 19 points without a miss. Rimene again held up his end of the bargain while he was on, kicking with accuracy on his way to two conversions and a penalty.

Hong Kong play South Korea at Hong Kong Football Club next weekend in the final match of the series, needing a win to clinch second place on the table, and Jones will go in optimistic.

“We’ll take some positives from today,” he said. “Those first 20 minutes. There were improvements in our set piece and our breakdown work was good. When we created a little momentum we asked a lot of questions.

“We managed to break them on a number of occasions from an attacking perspective. We just have to then put them under the hammer. They create a chance and they take a chance. We’ve got to create three chances and we generally take one.”