A clear blue sky, a field in immaculate condition bathed in sunshine, a band entertaining the crowd before the game, 50,000 passionate rugby fans and two teams, playing vastly different styles, giving it their all for 85 minutes — it could easily have been England vs. France at the Park de France in the Six Nations in spring.
However, this was the National Stadium in Tokyo on Saturday and the playing of the 39th University Championship final and the teams were Waseda University and Kanto Gakuin, out to win its fifth title in six years. In the end Waseda prevailed by winning 27-22, thereby securing the championship for the first time since 1989 when head coach Katsuyuki Kiyomiya captained the side.
“It is much more satisfying this time around to win as coach,” said Kiyomiya after a game in which the speed and organization of his team had overcome the physical presence of the Kanto Gakuin pack.
Waseda had gone into the game knowing that while its pack was 10 kg a man lighter than the Kanto eight, it had the speed outside to cause problems and an early string of penalties were all taken quickly as Waseda looked to stretch Kanto out wide.
From one such penalty in the seventh minute, Waseda took the lead when captain Daigo Yamashita showed great strength and a long reach in getting the ball down. Kotaro Tahara added the conversion and was on target eight minutes later to convert Satoshi Nakayama’s try after the wing had been put through the tiniest of gaps on the blindside before sprinting home from 40 meters out.
Yamashita and Rikiya Kawakami then combined from another quick penalty to put Tatsuhiko Otao over as Waseda looked to run riot over its opponent.
However, Kanto struck back with No. 8 Mitsuya Yamamoto going over from a five-meter scrum providing some justice for the Kanto pack after the Waseda scrum had been penalized four times in succession.
Tahara added a penalty for Waseda before Chikara Suzuki was put over for Kanto following a well-worked move at a lineout five meters out.
But the writing was on the wall for Kanto as time and time again they seemed to be penalized for doing nothing other than play the game as it is played every else in the world.
“I don’t want to talk about the referee,” was Kanto coach Hiroshi Haruguchi’s diplomatic response after the game but Shinichi Iwashita seemed to confuse everyone in the stadium with his version of officiating.
Kiyomiya said that he knew his team would win with the lead they held at halftime and Waseda’s cause was helped when Masakazu Irie (who had missed a sitter of penalty at the end of the first half) had a kick charged down by Masakazu Takamori, the lock regathering and diving over to put his team 27-10 up.
Kanto’s cause was further hindered by its backs, who were too often guilty of taking the ball standing still and getting tackled behind the gain line in contrast to Waseda’s backs who attacked from deep at speed. (Further shades of England against France).
Ryo Yamamura, who was a top sumo prospect until his conversion to rugby at the age of 15, scored twice for Kanto as it tried to stage a late rally but a number of incomprehensible decisions went against them and time eventually ran out.
Waseda will no doubt be delighted that it has finally laid the curse to rest — it had lost in five finals since the triumph of 1989.
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