Eagles unable to hold onto lead against Japan

“I’m proud of the boys for coming out but we let them off the hook a little bit."

TOKYO, Japan – Eric Fry and Chris Wyles helped the Men’s Eagles get on the front foot in the first half of their final IRB Pacific Nations Cup match against Japan Sunday, but Japan managed to come back and earn a hard-fought 38-20 win at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium.

Japan got on the board first in the seventh minute, outnumbering the Eagles wide. Luke Hume made a good tackle but a quick offload to Kenki Fukuoka resulted in the early deficit. Ayumu Goromaru added the conversion, his first of four in the match.

Adam Siddall, starting the match at center, had the hit of the match in the 12th minute and drew a penalty with the tackle.

The Eagles were rewarded with good attacking phases in the 16th minute. Chris Biller turned the ball over with a nice read and tackle on a Japanese attack and Siddall broke a few tackles to move the Eagles up the field. Hume got the ball out wide and made a quick offload to Scott LaValla, who passed to an onrushing Wyles before being pushed into touch 10 meters out of the try zone. Wyles ran around the last defender and dotted down closer to the sticks, giving himself a better angle for the conversion.

The 7-7 tie gave the Eagles a boost and resulted in their second try. Hume, near the touch line again in the 21st minute, passed it to Wyles for a big gain within the 22. Hume found the ball in the middle and Louis Stanfill filled in at scrumhalf to offload to Andrew Suniula. Suniula quickly gave the ball to Fry, who dove over the line to give the Eagles an important 12-7 lead.

A bad lineout by the Eagles in the 25th minute near their own try zone gave Japan great field position, and some poor tackling did not help the cause. Eventually, Japan moved the ball wide to Male Sau, who pulled away from Peter Dahl while his shirt was being tugged and scored a try in the corner. Goromaru missed the touch line conversion to keep the score level at 12-12.

Hume was almost hung out to dry in the following minutes with a long clearance kick by Japan finding the corner of the field. Hume, however, showed his pace to pick up the ball in the face of an oncoming Japanese attacker and run to midfield, ending the danger. After a few good phases by the Eagles, Japan committed a penalty in the breakdown and Wyles made them pay with a 40-meter penalty goal.

Two minutes before the end of the half, Japan’s Hendrick Tui quickly grabbed the ball from the ruck and ran 20 meters untouched to score between the sticks. Goromaru kicked the conversion from in front to send the teams into halftime with Japan up 19-15.

“We felt pretty good going into halftime, but we felt that we gave them a soft try at the end of the half,” captain Todd Clever said after the match. Clever earned his 50th career international cap Sunday.

The first half was arguably the Eagles’ best of 2013, with two tries and the inclusion of the backs in the attack a sign of how the Eagles can punish teams.

James Paterson misread a tackle in the 44th minute to allow Goromaru space just outside the try zone and offload to Japanese captain Toshiaki Hirose for the try and a 24-15 lead.

Japan’s five-foot-five scrumhalf, Fumiaki Tanaka, found space at midfield in the 49th minute and sent a kick and chase deep into Eagles territory, but was knocked down by Clever. Wyles got to the ball amidst a few Japanese players but knocked it on for a scrum. As has been the case in recent games, the Eagles struggled to cleanly win scrums, losing multiple in three minutes to a strong Japanese team. Eventually, a penalty try was awarded and the Eagles found themselves down 15-31 after the conversion.

The third match in 10 days also caught up with the tired Eagles with scrum after scrum being awarded. Fry was sent to the sin bin before the penalty try and Biller made way for Zach Fenoglio, both players a mainstay in the Eagles’ scrum.

The Eagles were hemmed in their own half for the first 25 minutes of the second half and were punished again by Japan in the 63rd minute. Tanaka used his pace to get through the line and his dummy pass allowed him to get in alone and juke Wyles into the try zone from 10 meters. Goromaru kicked his final conversion for the 38-15 lead.

Siddall broke a few more tackles in the 68th minute to set up Hume, who sent a grubber kick into the try zone and collected it for the try. Wyles could not give the Eagles the extra two points and the final score of 20-38 was not what the visitors deserved after the first 40 minutes.

“We played some of our best rugby in the last five games in the first half, but we needed to play like that for 80 minutes and we couldn't do it," Clever said. Japan defeated Wales and Canada in the week leading up the Pacific Nations Cup clash. "Japan’s on their game and playing some great rugby.

“I’m proud of the boys for coming out but we let them off the hook a little bit. We’re disappointed, but we have two big games coming up against our rivals Canada in August.”

Fiji finished atop the Pacific Nations Cup table with three wins and one loss, the same record as Canada, but took home the winners’ medal with 16 points to Canada’s 13. Tonga and Japan finished with 10 points and nine points, respectively, while the Eagles picked up a bonus point in the final match to finish with one point.

Though the 0-4 record in their first Pacific Nations Cup is disappointing, the Eagles are better prepared for their two Rugby World Cup Qualifiers against Canada this August.

“We played good, attacking ball in the first half and showed more patience,” Head Coach Mike Tolkin said. "Letting up a soft try just before the end of the half hurt our momentum for sure. Early in the second half some defensive lapses buried us in our own end and put us under pressure. Ultimately, that territorial disadvantage proved costly.

“The Pacific Nations Cup was our learning experience. Our goal was to win, but we also had a young squad who are getting blooded. We can’t move forward until that happens."

Purchase tickets for the first Qualifier at Charleston’s Blackbaud Stadium August 17 here.

Men's Eagles | vs. Japan
1. Shawn Pittman (Wallace @ 78)
2. Chris Biller (Fenoglio @ 65)
3. Eric Fry (Thiel @ 72)
4. Brian Doyle
5. Louis Stanfill (Murphy @ 75)
6. Scott LaValla
7. Peter Dahl (Dolan @ 39)
8. Todd Clever (C)
9. Mike Petri (Shaw @ 70)
10. Toby L'Estrange
11. James Paterson (Scully @ 40)
12. Andrew Suniula (Kelly @ 70)
13. Adam Siddall
14. Luke Hume
15. Chris Wyles

Men's Eagles | Reserves
16. Zach Fenoglio
17. Nick Wallace
18. Phil Thiel
19. Cameron Dolan
20. Liam Murphy
21. Robbie Shaw
22. Seamus Kelly
23. Blaine Scully

1. Masataka Mikami (Nagae @ 72)
2. Shota Horie (Kizu @ 78)
3. Hiroshi Yamashita (Hatakeyama @ 36)
4. Hitoshi Ono (Makabe @ 53)
5. Shoji Ito (Ives @ 60)
6. Hendrik Tui
7. Michael Broadhurst
8. Takashi Kikutani
9. Fumiaki Tanaka (Hiwasa @ 72)
10. Harumichi Tatekawa
11. Kenki Fukuoka (Fujita @ 78)
12. Craig Wing (Tamura @ 26)
13. Male Sau
14. Toskiaki Hirose (C)
15. Ayumu Goromaru

Japan | Reserves
16. Takeshi Kizu
17. Yusuke Nagae
18. Kensuke Hatakeyama
19. Shinya Makabe
20. Justin Ives
21. Atsushi Hiwasa
22. Yu Tamura
23. Yoshikazu Fujita

Men's Eagles | 20
Tries: Wyles, Fry, Hume
Conversions: Wyles
Penalties: Wyles

Japan | 38
Tries: Fukuoka, Sau, Tui, Hirose, Tanaka
Conversions: Goromaru (4)