Down 7-3, the Eagles scored two tries in the ten minutes before halftime which, together with a 40m Grant Wells penalty, gave the USA an 18-7 lead at the break. While the team never relinquished that lead, it withstood some severe pressure to keep the Japanese at bay.
The Cherry Blossoms' speed created several long breaks, and the Americans' defense withstood repeated challenges. Flyhalf Wells, making his first start for the USA, calmly kicked sixteen points including a late drop goal to give the Eagles' the offensive edge.
"The Japanese team had us in some grim defensive situations," noted USA head coach Duncan Hall. "We were under pressure. They played very flat and very fast, and they were always going to have the pace advantage. The boys really stuck to their guns, and all deserve credit. It was teamwork that won."
The Eagles were first on the scoreboard with a 30m Wells penalty in the sixth minute, but Japan's scrumhalf Yuji Sonoda answered with a try only two minutes later, scampering over from the base of a ruck on the American goal line. And although the Eagles' larger pack began to win the possession battle, the next 20 minutes were scoreless.
It was Chicago's young center, Philip Eloff, who broke the stalemate, with a big bust from inside his own 40m line. His cutback line found support from left wing Malakai Delai, who then put fellow wing Andre Blom under the posts at 30 minutes.
"We weren't in the game for most of the first half," said Hall. "We looked slow. But the guys got used to the pace of the game."
As a result of that adjustment, Wells added a 40m penalty and Kurt Shuman crossed for a try right before the halftime whistle. The Eagle fullback found the corner when the USA isolated and stripped Japan's fullback of the ball at the Cherry Blossom's 40m line. Flanker Kort Schubert took a run from the ruck that followed, found Philippe Farner in support and the lock, in turn, got the ball out to Shuman.
After the halftime break, Wells again opened the scoring. The Golden Gate flyhalf kicked a 27m penalty in the 43rd minute when the Japanese were caught offside at a scrum.
But the Eagles' two score lead did not last long. From the ensuing restart, the Japanese spread the ball left then right, stretching the US defense and giving speedster Michinori Oda room down the wing. Kurihara's conversion made it only a seven point game.
The US remained 21-14 ahead for fifteen minutes until, with the Eagles' scrum led by loosehead John McBride starting to cause trouble for the Japanese, captain Dave Hodges drove off the base approximately 25m out, stiffed armed one would-be tackler and ran in a try out wide.
"Dave had an outstanding match," acknowledged head coach Hall. "He played well in attack and defense and his try came at a crucial time."
Again the Japanese struck back almost immediately, with Oda intercepting an errant Eagles pass and running 35m for his second try under the posts in the 23rd minute, making it 26-21 and keeping the Cherry Blossoms in the hunt.
With less than ten minutes left in the match the USA pulled clear once more. A Shuman break down the sideline was kept alive by replacement prop Joe Clayton and Wells, and quick hands got the ball back inside where hooker Kirk Khasigian finished.
The Japanese were not about concede, however, and another period of goal line pressure only ended for the USA when an Eloff tackle forced a knock-on, snuffing the host's comeback aspirations.
The USA then worked its way down the length of the field and, undaunted by a light rain that fell on Hanazono Stadium through much of the match, Wells sealed the win with an injury-time drop goal that bounced in off the right-hand up-right.
"There's still plenty to learn and to work on," coach Hall said from Japan after the win. "We need to recycle our players better on defense, and we're going to have to work on creating space in attack. But the team played with a lot of passion. And it was great for the new players to start with a win, especially a win away from home."
The USA now returns home to host Canada on June 3 in Manchester, New Hampshire. The Canadians also won their first match of the Epson Cup, beating Tonga 29-11 last weekend. The Japanese, who won last year's Epson Cup tournament, are now 0-2.
Final: United States 36 Japan 21 (halftime USA 18-7)
USA: Tries: Blom, Shuman, Hodges, Khasigian
Pens: Wells (3)
Conv: Wells (2)
Drop Goals: Wells
Japan: Tries: Oda (2), Sanara
Conv: Kurihara (3)
United States: Kurt Shuman; Andre Blom, Philip Eloff, Juan Grobler, Malakai Delai; Grant Wells, Kevin Dalzell; John McBride (Joe Clayton), Kirk Khasigian, Ray Lehner, Philippe Farner, Matt Kane, Don Younger, Dave Hodges (captain), Kort Schubert.
© USA National Rugby Team
Scott Compton, Media Relations
Hudson Rugby Fieldhouse
Berkeley, California 94720 4426
phone 510.643.1971 / fax 510.643.2192