GOSFORD, Australia –They say good things come in threes. Following Sunday’s games that saw England and Ireland win two wonderfully competitive games, the United States and Japan produced a pearl of a match at a sold-out Central Coast Stadium on Monday evening.

News photoDaisuke Ohata of Japan scores a try during a Rugby World Cup Pool B match against the United States in Gosford, Australia.

In the end the U.S. was too strong and powerful for the Japanese, winning 39-26 but the hair-tingling farewell given to the Cherry Blossoms was a fair indicator of just how many friends they have won over since arriving in Australia, despite the fact that they leave Australia without a win.

“It’s nice to be entertainers and crowd pleasers but at the end of the day we had to win and we didn’t,” said Japan’s assistant coach Mark Ella.

If there is to be criticism of Japan’s performance in Rugby World Cup 2003 it has been that in all four games, the team has started and finished poorly.

The middle 55 minutes or so have shown that the players are capable of competing at the highest level — they just need more exposure to top-level rugby and the Japan Rugby Football Union should do everything in its power to ensure that the national team play competitive internationals on a regular basis. It is no more than the players deserve.

“We haven’t played many games against the big nations,” said coach Shogo Mukai, “and if we can start playing such games, particularly against the Pacific island nations, it will really benefit Japanese rugby.”

Toru Kurihara had said before the tournament that the second half of their 69-27 loss to the U.S. in May was the worst performance by any Japanese side he had played in, and the opening 11 minutes seemed to be a continuation of the game in San Francisco.

But the Cherry Blossoms slowly played themselves into the game and the 19,653 in the crowd were riveted as Japan matched its speed and flair against the huge physical presence of the Americans.

The U.S. had had seven days off since its last game compared with just four for the Japanese — who were playing their third game in nine days — and the freshness of their players and the tiredness of the Japanese was evident as the U.S. raced out to a 14-0 lead.

A missed tackle on Mike Hercus in the 8th minute allowed the U.S. flyhalf an easy run in from 30 meters before Phillip Eloff made the most of his pace and another very poor attempt at a tackle from the Japanese backs to score his team’s second try of the night, both of which were converted by Hercus.

Japan had played a game against Sydney at this picturesque ground in March and had held a training session with members of the local Avoca Beach rugby club and with the majority of the crowd behind them, the Cherry Blossoms finally came to life in the 20th minute.

The Japanese pack managed to keep the ball alive at the breakdown for the first time in the game and Andy Miller and George Konia combined to put Kurihara over for Japan’s first try. The roar that greeted Kurihara’s conversion left no one in any doubt as to which team the crowd favored.

Kurihara was on target four minutes later as the U.S. had trouble clearing a huge kick from Miller but, as has happened on too many occasions, Japan had problems at the restart and allowed Hercus the opportunity to regain the initiative — and the flyhalf made no mistake with the penalty and a second one on the half-hour as the U.S. went 20-10 up.

Japan was having trouble bringing down the huge American forwards and backs and some rather half-hearted tackling only added to its problems, but it was allowed to stay in the game as the result of some poor discipline and too many handling errors from the Americans.

The purists may have said there were too many mistakes but it only added to the excitement and the crowd certainly lapped it up.

The second half saw the Japanese run out in a change of jerseys and the Americans were soon seeing blue in more ways than one.

Ill-discipline at a ruck gave Kurihara the opportunity to close the gap and the Suntory fullback duly obliged.

The Japanese seemed to have lifted their game and were turning over a lot of American ball and from one such maul Dave Hodges was adjudged offside. Kurihara was once again on target and in the 51st minute a fourth penalty saw Japan close to within one point.

But Japan’s lack of big-match experience was once again exposed and another missed tackle on Hercus saw the flyhalf offload to Kort Schubert, who went over unopposed for the third U.S. try of the night.

In times gone by that would have seen the Japanese drop their heads but this side has lacked nothing in resilience and bravery.

Over 1 million people have attended the games so far (1,017,738) but few of the crowds could have matched the noise that greeted Daisuke Ohata in the 58th minute as the speedster took advantage of yet another turnover to cross over for his 34th international try.

The game seemed to have turned in Japan’s favor but the Americans, and in particular Eloff, were still looking dangerous on the break and Riaan van Zyl finished off a move started well inside their own half by fullback John Buchholz as the U.S. claimed its second bonus point of the tournament.

Hercus’ conversion meant the Japanese had to score twice but time was against them and Kirk Khasigan put the result beyond doubt with a try in the 80th minute as once again Japan failed to last the distance.

For veterans such as Yukio Motoki and Takeomi Ito, the game was probably their last in the national jersey.

The young Japanese players watching Japan’s performance in this World Cup have an awful lot to live up to. It’s just a shame the players, who represented Japan in Australia with such honor couldn’t give what every non-American wanted — a win for Japan.

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