Both sides come away happy as feisty HK pull out all stops
Everyone was a winner yesterday. The scoreboard read Japan 45, Hong Kong 22, but in truth there were no losers at the end of the HSBC Asian Five Nations Top Five encounter at Hong Kong Football Club in Happy Valley yesterday.
There were pre-match fears that Hong Kong would just be making up the numbers as Japan, playing their first game this season, began their title defence. And it looked that way in the first half as Japan ran in five tries to lead 31-3 at the break.
But then the tide turned. Hong Kong outscored Japan three tries to two in the second half as Asia's World Cup representatives began to look a bedraggled side as passes were spilled and mistakes flooded into their play.
And with Singapore referee Harry Mason running a tight, and to Japanese eyes, a strange ruler over his interpretation of the scrummaging laws, the visitors were reduced to disarray in the area which mattered most. For a time, mighty Japan resembled mere mortals.
Coach John Kirwan realised his team had plenty of work to do before 'rusty' Japan would be World Cup-ready. But he was not unhappy; indeed, he was just the opposite.
'The only positive out of this game was we came away with a win. But I'd rather this happen now than later,' said Kirwan referring to Japan's lengthy build-up before the World Cup gets underway in New Zealand in September.
'All credit to Hong Kong. They got in our faces. We failed to protect the ball and lost our composure. It is a good win but we have plenty of work to do,' Kirwan said. 'By the end of the Asian Five Nations, I would expect us to be performing at a much higher level to put us in good place for the World Cup.'
Kirwan had wanted a tough and challenging game so he would know what needed to be addressed before pruning his preliminary 40-man squad for the World Cup. He got it yesterday as Hong Kong made life hard in the second half with tries from Alex McQueen, Mark Goosen and Rowan Varty turning the game into a real contest.
The last time Hong Kong held Japan to under 50 points was in 1998, when in the now-defunct Pacific Rim tournament, Hong Kong edged to a 17-16 victory. Unlike the team lead by Tom McColl, the class of '98 was full of Australians and New Zealanders.
'This is a huge boost for our morale. Yes, we lost, but we showed we can be competitive against Japan, the best side in Asia,' a happy McColl said. 'I'm very proud the boys didn't give up.'
Hong Kong could easily have gone down that route after winger Alisi Tupuailai - the Jonah Lomu of Japan - grabbed a brace that added to earlier tries by No8 Ryu Koliniasi, flyhalf Shaun Webb and left-winger Hirotoki Onozawa.
But the try-glut dried up in the second half. Tupuailai completed his hat-trick and flanker Michael Leitch added another to take the tally to seven, but that was lost in the excitement generated by Hong Kong, who looked a revived side.
A few changes seemed to work. The halves combination of Peter McKee and Keith Robertson was replaced by Tim Alexander and Jamie McKee. Winger McQueen had come on for Salom Yiu Kam-shing in the first half. Workhorse Pete Spizzirri was brought into the front row. The replacements all seemed to spark Hong Kong into life.
'This is one of the best performances against Japan in recent times and it is a big day for Hong Kong rugby,' said elated national coach Dai Rees. 'The boys have done Hong Kong proud today.'
The revival was sparked by effervescent fullback Ross Armour. Sin-binned early in the first-half for tackling an opponent without the ball, Armour made up for that lapse when he made a superb break just after the break evading three defenders, before off-loading to McQueen on his inside for Hong Kong's first try.
Hong Kong's next two tries were lucky, but still praiseworthy as the chances were gobbled up. Goosen picked up from a breakdown to scamper 10 metres to score under the posts and then Varty picked up a dropped ball metres from his own line to run the length of the entire pitch and score.
'It is disappointing we couldn't get a fourth try and a bonus point,' McColl said. 'But we showed a lot of heart today.'
In the women's match, Japan beat Hong Kong 15-0.