Japan have all but wrapped up a sixth successive HSBC Asian 5 Nations title after beating Korea 64-5 at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium in Tokyo on Saturday, their 23rd successive bonus point win in the competition.
The Brave Blossoms will finish their campaign against the United Arab Emirates in Dubai next weekend with coach Eddie Jones set to field a number of young players.
Hong Kong are also on track to finish second after beating Top 5 newcomers the Philippines 59-20 in Manila and now have a weekend off before travelling to Ansan to face Korea in the key battle for that position.
“I am very pleased with today’s performance. It was a good first 40 minutes and although we got a little bit tired in the second half and were a bit flat, we finished well,” admitted Japan coach Eddie Jones.
His side had scored six tries in the first half to lead 40-0 at the break and ensure there was no way back for the visitors.
Kosei Ono got the scoreboard ticking over after just 90 seconds before exciting young wing Kenki Fukuoka got the crowd roaring with a brace in the space of three minutes.
“The Japan players were quicker than we expected and we just couldn’t cope early on,” said Korean captain Park Soon Chai.
Finishing on a high
His Japanese counterpart Takashi Kikutani then showed that the veterans still had plenty to offer, going over for a pair of tries of his own as the home pack starved the Koreans of any ball.
Japan’s youngest ever player Yoshikazu Fujita then rounded off the scoring in the first half with a well-worked try, Ayumu Goromaru adding a fifth successful conversion.
With the hard ground taking its toll and a mix of Japan having “a few players cramp up” in Jones’ words and the Koreans regrouping, the second half was a different affair.
Hendrik Tui extended Japan’s lead before the visitors laid siege to the Japan line, only to be met with some resolute defence.
A penalty try and a five-pointer from Goromaru saw Japan go 59-0 up before the Koreans were finally rewarded for their efforts as Oh Youn Hyung crossed in the 77th minute.
Male Sa’u, however, ensured the day ended on a high for the hosts, making the most of some good play from the backs to go over in the final minute.
Coming of age
Meanwhile, in Manila, Hong Kong coach Leigh Jones admitted the final score somewhat flattered his charges, who with victory ensured they will be in the Top 5 for next year when the Asia 1 qualifier for Rugby World Cup 2015 will be confirmed
A seven-try blitz in the second half paved the way for Hong Kong, whose dominant pack laid the foundation for the victory over the Philippines, returning to action for the first time since losing their first Top 5 encounter 121-0 to Japan.
“The scoreline flattered us in the end,” said Jones. “I don’t think they deserved to shift 50 points. But I’m proud of my guys. They adapted to the conditions and came out in the second half fighting. They came of age today.”
A brace of tries from Jonny Rees sparked Hong Kong into action in the second half, the wing on hand to complete fine work from centres David Whiteford and Ally Maclay and silence the Rizal Stadium crowd by taking control of the match for the first time.
Number 8 Pale Tauti touched down soon after before the impressive Whiteford scored himself as Hong Kong strengthened its stranglehold on the match. Seb Alfonsi, captain Tom McColl and replacement Dennis Chang also touched down as the Philippines, down to 14 men, were swept aside.
Hong Kong had struggled to a 14-10 lead at the break, unable to break down a spirited Philippines defence who were cheered on by a vociferous crowd enjoying their first home match in the Top 5.
A dominant pack helped Hong Kong take that slender lead into the second half with the referee awarding the visitors two penalty tries as the Volcanoes collapsed scrums with their try-line under threat.
More in the tank
The second try came about after Philippines wing Joseph Matthews thought he had scored a breakaway try, only to see his effort overruled by the referee for an earlier offside penalty.
The turnaround was huge. From potentially stretching their lead to 10 points, the Philippines suddenly found themselves trailing by four points at the break.
Wing Patrice Olivier, a last-minute replacement for the injured Matt Saunders, was the hometown hero in the first half after he latched on to a neat chip kick from the left-foot of second row David Feeney and beat opposite number Rees to the try-line.
Fly half Alexander Aronson, who had knocked over a penalty earlier, added the extra points to give the Philippines the lead for the second time in the game. However, that was the only time they enjoyed it as Hong Kong came storming back in the second half.
Philippines full back Michael Letts gave some cheer to the home crowd in the second half when he scored their second try, but it was small consolation. The Philippines travel to Korea next weekend before a vital match with UAE in Manila on 18 May that will decide if their RWC 2015 dream lives on or is over.
“I think there is more in the tank from these guys,” admitted Jones. “I don’t think it is over and we will be going to Korea for our final game in a fortnight aiming to win.”