RWC 2019 Pool Game 26: Superb Japan stay the course to see off Samoa

Japan’s World Cup odyssey continued last night with a hard-fought but well-deserved 38-19 defeat of Samoa in front of a jubilant home crowd in Toyota.

Three wins from three would have been more than they could have hoped for going into their home World Cup. But with expectations rising with each performance, the desire for a bonus point win over the Samoans was palpable.

And despite a much-improved effort from the Polynesians, who were just a score behind with seven minutes left on the clock, the Brave Blossoms came home with a wet sail and a try after the siren to Kotaro Matsushima – in bizarre circustances, to get one step closer to a historic Quarter Final.

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Early phase-play from Japan brought a penalty inside two minutes, although they could have come away with more if Timothy Lafaele had held the grubber through from Yu Tamura playing the advantage. But the vocal home crowd were content to see 3pts off the flyhalf’s boot for starters.

They should have had more when Lomano Lemeki was released up the touchline with Samoa’s defence sucked infield. But the winger failed to see the support coming up fast on his inside for a run to the line, and when he went to ground, terrific work over the ball from Samoan captain Jack Lam won the turnover.

However, Tim Nanai-Williams’ exit kick didn’t travel far, and when Japan surged again off the lineout and scrumhalf Yutaka Nagare’s clearance from a ruck a few metres out was stymied by an offside, Tamura doubled their advantage.

That was soon cancelled out when the Brave Blossoms were pinged for holding on, and Western Force centre Henry Taefu dissected the uprights for his side’s first successful penalty of the tournament. And when Michael Leitch was caught on the wrong side at the breakdown, Taefu calmly slotted a second to level the scoreboard and nullify Japan’s positive opening.

With a quarter of the match played there were some worrying signs creeping into the Japanese game. They were coming off second best at the breakdown, their discipline was costing them across the park, and they conceded a scrum penalty – all areas which they used to their advantage against Ireland.

Meanwhile, Samoa were already looking like a vastly different proposition to the side that surrendered so meekly to Scotland last time out. That is, until their unwelcome achilles heel of self-control – or the lack of it – returned to bite them.

An infringement in front of the posts allowed Tamura to edge the hosts back in front in the 22nd minute. But it was a needless late hit on Kotaro Matsushima – a shoulder charge from TJ Ioane – that was more costly, the no.8 rightly shown yellow.

Japan took immediate advantage, Leitch stealing ball on the floor to kickstart another rapier-like attack, and the elusive Matsushima slicing his way through several defenders to carry within five metres. Skipper Lappies Labuschagne was then felled shy of the line, but when the ball was recycled to the opposite flank they had the numbers for Samoan-born Lafaele to dummy his way through the line and over.

Taefu missed a chance to narrow the margin when he pushed a long-range effort wide on the half hour. But it did give a chance for his side to run the clock down, and Ioane to return with no further damage on the scoreboard. This was an added bonus when an illegal chargedown on Nanai-Williams – which seemed a harsh decision – was punished by 3pts off the boot, and the half-time score was a tight 16-9.

Popular hooker Shota Horie was introduced for the start of the second forty, as Jamie Joseph looked to inject some added power and mobility to his pack. But it was a failure to put enough bodies into the breakdown that cost Japan the first points of the half, Seilala Lam isolating the ball carrier and forcing a penalty, duly slotted by Taefu.

In a game of see-sawing infringements, Tamura then pushed an effort wide when Samoa were guilty of a ‘truck and trailer’ at a driving maul, only to make amends in the 51st minute after fine work over the ball from burly no.8 Kazuki Himeno. But the roof almost came off the City of Toyota Stadium with their next attack, a five-metre lineout driven over with 11 bodies putting their shoulders to the wheel for Himeno to find the chalk.

Collective hearts were then in mouths as Japan switched off from the restart and gifted Samoa a route inside the 22, some scrambling defence required to keep the Pacific Islanders at bay. They did win a penalty for their efforts, and opted for a scrum right in front. But a terrific shove from the Brave Blossoms pack, a destructive clean-out from a fired-up Leitch, and another turnover from the immoveable Himeno, won back possession. The cheers could have been heard back in Tokyo.

As against Ireland, Japan looked like they had flicked a switch and gone into overdrive as the game entered the final quarter. They had raised the pace and intensity, backing their fitness and challenging Samoa to stay with them. And they did.

Back-to-back penalties got them inside the home 22, and after a couple of lineout drives failed they shifted it inside for the forwards to finally find a hole in the Japanese wall, and Taefu to spin out of a tackle and over. He dusted himself off to add the extras and take his, and Samoa’s, tally to 19. One score in it with less than seven to go. Game on.

But you doubt this Japan team at your peril. Showing remarkable reserves of character, calmness under pressure, and an ability to execute when it really matters, they simply went straight up the other end and put the result to bed.

Himeno – a standout in the second half – won yet another turnover to set his side on the attack, and their patience and execution at speed to stretch the Samoan defence was admirable. Labusachagne carried hard up the middle, Matsushima had a dart down the sideline, the front row took turns to hammer at the door, and with numbers out wide they went through the hands for replacement Kenki Fukuoka – the hero against Ireland – to bag yet another famous try, and put his side within touching distance of a first-ever Quarter Final. Thrilling stuff.

With victory now confirmed, they had four minutes to go for the all-important bonus point. A penalty gave them the lineout option, and a chance to set a driving maul once again with all hands on deck. But just as they looked destined to march their way towards glory, Samoa’s defence manned up to somehow thwart their progress and win a scrum put-in.

The final gong sounded, and an early engagement from an over-eager Japanese pack gifted Samoa possession, and with it, the chance to kick the ball dead to put an end to proceedings – something anyone of a Scottish persuasion was hoping for, and expecting . But bizarrely, they opted for another scrum just five metres from their own line.

Things got even stranger when two engagements later, referee Jaco Peyper penalised Samoan scrumhalf Pele Cowley for a crooked feed – an event as rare as hen’s teeth in the modern game, to give Japan the put in and one last opportunity. And at the second time of asking, Himeno span off the back to smash his way within a metre, and Fumiaki Tanaka was on hand to fire a bullet pass wide for Matsushima to dummy his way over and send the 40,000-plus crowd bananas. Incredible.

14pts from three games for the hosts then, but the irony off the back of this latest success is that it may still not be enough to get them to a historic place in the last eight. That would be too cruel a fate to suffer for a second World Cup in a row, but a win for Ireland against Samoa in their last pool match would give them 15pts, while Scotland should grab a bonus point against Russia to be sitting on 10pts going into the final crucial clash with the Brave Blossoms.

Should they win that with a bonus, the Japanese dream would be over yet again. But on this form, and with an entire newly rugby-mad nation now behind them, would you be betting against them?

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JAPAN 38 (Timothy Lafaele, Kazuki Himeno, Kenki Fukuoka, Kotaro Matsushima tries; Yu Tamura 3 cons, 4 pens) defeated SAMOA 19 (Henry Taefu try; con, 4 pens) HT 16-9 at City of Toyota Stadium

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