(Tokyo, Japan) 10 May 1998 -- Three second-half tries lifted the United States past host Japan 38-27 in today's Canterbury of New Zealand Pacific Rim Rugby Championship match at Prince Chichibu Stadium, a back-and-forth contest decided in the last ten minutes.
Paced by tries from wing Patiliai Tuidraki and flanker Greg Smith--the first coming soon after kickoff--Japan took a 17-16 halftime edge and seemed to be in charge when Tuidraki claimed his second score right after the break. Center Juan Grobler's try and three Matt Alexander penalty goals kept the US in hunt during the opening period.
But a 46th-minute try from revitalized lock Alec Parker brought the US back to within a point, before a fourth Alexander three-pointer gave the Eagles a tenuous 24-22 lead.
A penalty try for an intentional knock-on that spoiled a US four-on-one and replacement flanker Jay Wilkerson's tally decided the outcome. Winger Osami Yatsuhashi scored for Japan in injury time, meaning each side finished with four tries and a bonus point in the standings.
The victory gets the US off on the right foot while extending its win streak to three. But coming on the heels of a similarly late loss to Canada last week, today's result spells trouble for Japan. Besides gaining just one point from two home games, the team is under serious domestic pressure for picking a New Zealander as captain and fielding six players who came to the Asian country to compete as professionals.
Tuidraki's tries at the start of both halves seemed to underline a sense of urgency, and as always the Japanese produced moments of lightning execution.
Meanwhile, for try scorer Grobler, Japan again proved bad luck: The Denver Barbarians midfielder broke his arm in the 56th minute of play and will have to return home. Last year in San Francisco, Grobler suffered a detached retina against the Cherry Blossoms in another mishap that ended his Pacific Rim season.
Listed at flyhalf, Kurt Shuman stepped in at outside center and did well down the stretch. But the US will look to fill Grobler's place, and may also have to bring in another winger, as Belmont Shore's Chris Schlereth labored throughout the match with a bad hamstring. Fullback Chris Morrow too has been slowed by hamstring trouble.
In the forwards, number eight Rob Lumkong stood out as man of the match, making several decisive runs, most notably a late 30-yard charge in which he stiffed-armed several tacklers before offloading to Wilkerson for the game's clinching try. Hooker and captain Tom Billups also played well, making plenty of tackles around the park.
"The match was a story of two halves," US head coach Jack Clark summarized. "We struggled to stay close in the first half, but were able to turn the game around at the intermission."
Alluding to the April tour of Portugal and Spain, Clark noted "I believe this to be an experienced team at this point, and the boys are pretty reserved [about the win]. As Tommy [Billups] told the team after the match, tomorrow we go to hell's kitchen, Hong Kong."
Monday morning, the Eagles leave for steamy Hong Kong, whose Dragons were 23-17 winners over Canada yesterday. The former British colony has been logging in at 85 degrees with 85 percent humidity as it heads into typhoon season.
Japan: Tries: Patiliai Tuidraki (2), Greg Smith, Osami Yatsuhashi
Conv: Stephen Miln, Terunori Masuho
Pens: Stephen Miln
USA: Tries: Juan Grobler, Alec Parker, Jay Wilkerson, penalty try
Conv: Matt Alexander (3)
Pens: Matt Alexander (4)
Referee: Ross Mitchell (Hong Kong)