Two New Zealand stalwarts of the rugby scene in Japan saw their hopes of finishing on a high disappear on Sunday as Yamaha bowed out to NEC in the quarterfinals of the 55th Company Clubs Rugby Football Championship. To make matters worse their side didn’t even lose but failed to reach the last four by virtue of scoring two tries to NEC’s three in their 24-24 draw at Chichibunomiya Stadium.
Despite winning the Kansai league for the first time in its history, Yamaha has decided to take on a new set of coaches for the launch of the new Top League. Head coach Kevin Schuler has therefore decided to return home to New Zealand, while assistant coach Scott Pierce may follow if he is not picked up by a team in Japan.
“It’s a hard way to finish my stint here,” Pierce said after the game. “I’ve been here 10 years and really enjoy living here and would like to stay longer.”
With Yamaha up 13-0 after 22 minutes, following a try by Daisuke Nakano and two penalties and a conversion by Takanobu Horikawa, Schuler and Pierce must have thought that they would be around for at least another week.
But NEC, which has gotten better along with the season, clawed its way back into the game thanks to tries by Ryota Asano (who rumbled over from a quick penalty five meters out in the 24th minute) and Masao Amino (driven over from a line-out close to the line on the stroke of halftime). With Keichi Shirahama adding the two conversions and a penalty, NEC led 17-13 at halftime.
Yamaha, however, came out for the second half with purpose and two penalties from Horikawa saw it regain the lead — though it was shortlived. NEC, whom Pierce described as probably having the best pack in Japan, finally kept the ball tight for a sustained period of pressure on the Yamaha line and was rewarded when Amino was driven over from a scrum five meters out, for his second try of the game. Kamame Okamura added what ended up being the all-important conversion as NEC went ahead 24-19.
With seven minutes plus stoppage time to go, Yohei Shinomiya spotted a gap in the NEC defense and used his pace to go over, tying the game at 24-24. However, even though the fullback cleverly cut inside to make the angle of the conversion easier, Horikawa missed the kick thereby setting up the grandstand finish.
Unfortunately the missed kick seemed to dent the fly half’s confidence as he proceeded to miss a penalty from 50 meters out before failing with two late drop-goal attempts that would have kept Yamaha’s season alive.
However Horikawa wasn’t helped by the inability of his teammates to grasp the situation and provide a good platform and service from which to try the field goals.
“We knew the rules on the sidelines,” Pierce said, “but it seemed some of our players didn’t.”
However, they were not the only ones who were unsure of the situation with NEC flanker Glen Marsh saying he was really worried about the prospect of having to play extra time.
NEC assistant coach Tom Barker probably best summed up the fortuitous way his team advanced by saying, “It’s a bit like having to kiss your mother-in-law.”
Following Sunday’s other quarterfinals, the semifinals will be an all-East Japan affair. NEC will play Toshiba Fuchu after the latter beat Sanyo 68-8, while Ricoh, a 28-10 winner over Kintetsu, will meet Suntory, which beat Kobe Steel 54-34 at a sold-out Hanazono Stadium in Osaka in what was a repeat of last year’s final.
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