RWC 2019 Pool Game 1: Nervy Japan still start with a bonus

It wasn’t as one-sided a contest as most had predicted, but hosts Japan have still got their Rugby World Cup campaign off to a positive start with a 30-10 bonus point victory over Russia in Tokyo.

A try in the opening five minutes for the Russians threatened to derail the celebrations after the crowd had revelled in the opening ceremony. But despite proving to be a tough nut to crack, especially up front where their scrum was more than competitive, the Bears lacked the firepower to lay enough glove on a Japanese side that recovered to rack up the four tries they wanted, including a hat-trick to flying winger Kotaro Matsushima.

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It was a ropey start from the home side, who failed to take the kick-off, conceded a penalty inside their 22, and saw a clearing kick charged down all in the first few minutes. And the nerves amongst the Tokyo faithful weren’t quelled when fullback Will Tupou made a hash of a benign up’n’under, and Russian winger Kirrill Goloznitsky pounced to dart through for the tournament opener.

Japan slowly settled and hit back on 12 minutes, keeping ball in hand and stretching the Russian line to get their reward. A lovely pass out the back of the hand from Timothy Lafaele, allowed Tupou to make some amends by putting Kotaro Matsushima away down the sideline.

Half an hour in, Russia were still frustrating their hosts with choking line speed, and an ability to mix up their game with high balls, chip kicks, and a slicker than expected offloading game. Japan’s ball handling was also leaving a lot to be desired, but the signs were already there that the Bears were tiring. Could they keep it up for 80 minutes?

Matsushima was over again in the corner on 33 minutes, only to be chalked off for a knock-on according to the TMO. But the flying winger made no mistake just before half-time, in the right place at the right time again as the holes began to open up in the Russian defence, to take a final pass from impressive inside centre Ryoto Nakamura to slide home.

The Brave Blossoms were straight on the attack from the restart, skipper Michael Leitch pointing to the posts when Russia infringed within range, and Yu Tamura opened up a 15-7 lead. And they were feeling a lot better about things when Lappies Labuschagne stripped lock Andrey Ostrikov on halfway, and ran clear with enough legs to see off any chasers for his sides third.

But instead of the floodgates opening, Russia found a second wind and went back to the aerial bombardment that had caused Japan problems in the first half. They were almost over again off a lineout drive before the hour, but the home defence held out. However, a penalty allowed flyhalf Yury Kushnarev to slot 3pts and reduce the deficit to 20-10 with a quarter remaining.

Tamura was not having his best day off the boot but stood up to be counted when asked again by his captain, and chalked off Russia’s score with 3pts of his own from 45 metres for 23-10. And the chickens finally came home to roost with 10 minutes to go, the weariest of clearing kicks from Russian skipper Vasily Artemyev under pressure, ruthlessly punished when Japan shifted it back to the opposite flank for Matsushima to burn off a couple of tired forwards for his hat-trick.

The 2019 Rugby World Cup is off and running, and the hosts have passed test number one. But with the greater challenges of Ireland, Samoa and Scotland ahead, they will hope those first day nerves were exactly that.

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JAPAN 30 (Kotaro Matsushima 3, Lappies Labuschagne tries; Yu Tamura con, 2 pens, Rikiya Matsuda con) defeated RUSSIA 10 (Kirill Golosnitskiy try; Yury Kushnarev con, pen)

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