Brave Hong Kong fail to stop Japan from taking Asia’s place at RWC
Hong Kong can take heart from a courageous defensive performance against Japan as they face a long and hard repêchage road to the 2015 World Cup, after the Brave Blossoms claimed the one automatic berth for Asia with a 49-8 win at the National Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on Sunday.
The scoreline wasn't a true reflection of the guts and grit showed by Asia's second-best team, who held Japan scoreless for long periods and forced their opponents into making uncharacteristic errors.
The professional Japanese outfit, fielding three Super Rugby players, scored in bursts at the end of each half to inflate the score, with Hong Kong struggling to win possession from their scrums and lineouts, making life harder for themselves.
"We didn't deserve that score," said Dai Rees, Hong Kong Rugby Football Union's head of technical development and performance. "I'm proud of the way we defended but there is only so much you can do without the ball. Something's got to give and it did sadly."
Hong Kong tackled their hearts out in front of 16,370 spectators and held on grimly in the first 30 minutes with the score reading 8-3, but three quick tries before the break saw Japan go into half-time leading 27-3, with the solitary points coming from a drop-goal by Chis McAdam.
A bad ankle injury robbed Hong Kong of skipper and flanker Nick Hewson in the second half but they fought on bravely, frustrating the Japanese, who made 20 handling errors in the face of some solid defending, with Hong Kong also cleverly slowing down play at the breakdown.
They held Japan scoreless for the first 20 minutes in the second half and even went one better when a well-executed move by the backs, with McAdam looping, resulted in substitute winger Tom McQueen scoring with his first touch of the ball to give Hong Kong heart as they entered the last quarter trailing 27-8.
However, Japan added another four tries in the last 15 minutes - winger Yoshikazu Fujita leading the way with a hat-trick - to win the Asian Five Nations for the seventh and final year, with the tournament shrinking to a Top Three next year. Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea will play on a home-and-away basis.
"In previous years we would have been blown away. But to trail 8-3 after 30 minutes and then 27-8 after 60 minutes shows how far we have progressed," Rees said. "But at the end of the day they put us under a lot of pressure and made us pay for our mistakes but I'm very proud of the guys."
It was the first time Hong Kong have held Japan to less than 50 points playing away and McQueen's try was the first against Japan in the past three years. Yet the gulf between Japan, 13th in the world, and Hong Kong (23) was too big to overcome.
The defeat means Hewson and his men will have to travel to Montevideo to take on Uruguay in a one-off match on August 2 in the first stage of the repechages. The winners will then meet the winners of the tie between Russia and the top African qualifier (Kenya, Madagascar, Namibia and Zimbabwe are in the running) in a home-and-away series for the final World Cup place.
"We can go to Uruguay with hope in our hearts after this performance," Rees said.