Hong Kong make Japan work hard for victory
The home side effectively slowed down the visitors but in the end lost by six tries to nil
It seemed as if the foundations of the Great Wall had been moved to Hong Kong Football Club yesterday as Japan floundered on a brave and unyielding Hong Kong defensive line at the Asian Five Nations Top Five competition before running out 38-0 winners.
It was shades of the Spartans at Thermopylae. You knew the outcome well beforehand, but you still cheered lustily for this defiant last stand. Defeat was inevitable, but Tom McColl and his men can be proud of holding back the relentless Japanese attacks for as long as they did. And they did it with heart, as well as cleverly using the leniency of a Singaporean referee officiating in his first international.
That Hong Kong slowed the game down was evident to see. They denied Japan quick ball at the breakdown. Scrumhalf Peter McKee was a master at delaying tactics, flirting time and again with the sin-bin as he prevented his opponents from using the quick tap. Hong Kong's defensive line was right in the faces of the Japanese, at times straying offside.
It all made for a "thoroughly enjoyable game" for Japan head coach Eddie Jones who despite being frustrated by Hong Kong getting away with murder, still tipped his hat to his opponents.
"It was a tough game and we expected it. We knew they would be up for this game," Jones said. "They slowed it down excellently. It was good coaching by Hong Kong and I'm not complaining. It was a situation we had to cope with and our execution was not that flash. But we still won scoring six tries and we never looked like losing the game."
Expectations that Japan only had to turn up to win were blown away as they failed to dominate in the fashion they are used to. Last week they ran in 18 tries against the Philippines but Hong Kong was tough and full of grit, and they were more than a mouthful.
The defensive effort was led superbly by back-row trio Pale Tauti, Matt Lamming and Alex Baddeley. Hong Kong had wanted more mobility in the forwards and blindside flanker Baddeley offered them that as he harried the Japanese down. In midfield Dave Whiteford and Stewart Megaw were immense and joined by skipper Tom McColl created a wall which was hard to breach.
Anyone coming in to the ground at the break must have thought that the scoreboard was broken - it only read 14-0, two tries 32 minutes apart. The first early in the game by hooker Takeshi Kizu and the second right on halftime by flyhalf Kosei Ono.
The tackle count told the story. At the break Hong Kong put in 67 tackles to Japan's 23. At fulltime it was 124 to 39. McColl praised his teammates calling it a "gutsy effort" and said it proved how much "heart" there was for the Hong Kong jersey.
But tackling your heart out had to take a toll, though it wasn't as heavy as expected with Japan only managing to add another four tries after the break with skipper and winger Toshiako Hirose getting a brace while other winger Yuta Imamura and his replacement Yoshikazu Fujita also touching down. These tries by the backs proved that Japan had only belatedly realised that the straight and direct route taken by their forwards was of no use against a well-drilled pack.
"Our boys did a good job in the contact areas slowing their ball down," said Hong Kong head coach Leigh Jones. "We needed a little bit of luck too and this was a courageous test of fortitude."
While Hong Kong can reflect on a superb defensive performance, at the end of the day matches can only be won by putting points on the board. The home team fell short of this goal by a long way. Two years ago, Hong Kong outscored Japan 19 points to 14 in the second half scoring three tries in the process, before finally losing 45-22.
Yesterday, the focus was only on denying Japan points. Not scoring it themselves.