GLASGOW ― It wasn't quite 2019 running rugby from Japan at Stade de Toulouse in Toulouse, France, on Thursday night, September 28. But there were moments in its must-win match against Samoa that reminded us just how good Japan is with the ball in hand.
Heading into the crucial Rugby World Cup Pool D encounter, Japan and Samoa had both suffered one defeat. A second would end hopes of a place in the knockout stage.
Despite the high-pressure nature of the situation, Japan played a much more fluid style of rugby under the full moon that lit up the Toulouse night sky. The result? A 28-22 victory.
It was a much more varied game plan than the predictable kicking based on what we witnessed from the Brave Blossoms for long periods against Chile and for the duration against England.
With less predictability to its play in a match that began at 4 AM JST on Friday, defending Japan's attacks became much more difficult for Samoa. The fact that Japan only ended up winning by six points is to Samoa's credit. Samoa fought until the very end despite playing with one less player for the final 34 minutes.
"It's a big win for us. We had to work bloody hard for that win," Japan head coach Jamie Joseph said in his post-match interview, shown on the world feed.
The coach continued, "We had to play for the whole game, they are big guys. It [the Argentina game on October 8] will be sort of our grand final. Our guys are going to be really excited for that match. It's going to be another tough one."
Japan Shows Ruthless Efficiency in the First Half
Despite enjoying significantly less possession and territory in the first half, Japan took a 17-8 advantage into the second half.
Electing to keep the ball in hand more than it had done in its previous two World Cup matches, Japan ran in two tries despite only enjoying 38% possession.
The tries came about from Japan scrums. It appeared like quick use of the ball from its scrum was a strategy Japan had worked on for this encounter.
With 13 minutes played, flanker Pieter Labuschagne scored his second try in a Japan jersey. Labuschagne finished off a sweeping 40-meter move as fullback Lomano Lemeki advanced the ball before swift passing left Samoa unable to defend its line. Fly-half Rikiya Matsuda converted from the tee to give Japan an early 7-0 lead.
After the teams exchanged penalties, Japan crossed the Samoa goal line again in the 31st minute.
Second Try an Action Replay of the Opener
The Brave Blossoms once more got the ball out of a scrum at lightning speed. Again it was Lemeki who made significant meters on the right wing before the ball was passed across to the left wing where Michael Leitch, who captained Japan's 2019 RWC squad, was waiting to score in the corner.
Matsuda made the difficult touchline conversion look easy to give the Brave Blossoms a 17-3 lead.
Things got worse for Samoa as scrum-half Jonathan Taumateine was yellow carded for his cynical attempt to stop Lemeki in the build-up.
Before the half concluded Samoa got itself back into contention. Japan hooker Shota Horie, playing in his fourth World Cup, was sin-binned for a head on collision with an opponent. From the resulting penalty, Samoa executed its lineout perfectly and its rolling maul could not be stopped. Horie's opposite number Seilala Lam was the man who scored the try to pull Samoa within 17-8.
Christian Leali'ifano missed the ensuing conversion.
Japan Alters Strategy and Looks Much Better for It
Kicking is an important part of modern rugby. There's a time and a place for it. But, in making more effort to get its fast passing and running play going, Japan looked a far more dangerous team against Samoa.
With less possession, Japan balanced its attack very evenly between kicking and running. Running from its own scrums was a definite tactic. This was employed despite starting scrum-half Yutaka Nagare's late withdrawal from the team. Replacement Naoto Saito took the No 9 jersey and put in an assured performance.
With Samoa constantly passing and running when it had possession, Japan's better tactical variety helped it build a commanding lead on the scoreboard before holding on toward the final whistle.
With another must-win fixture against Argentina looming on October 8 (starting at 8 PM JST), this Japan performance will have Argentina's coaches a little more concerned than they might have been had Japan produced another unbalanced tactical showing against Samoa.
Early Second-Half Moments Decide the Outcome
The second half was only six minutes old when Samoa wing Ben Lam was sent to the sin bin for contacting Labuschagne's head with his shoulder. The review bunker swiftly informed the match referee that the yellow card shown to Lam would be upgraded to a red. Samoa would need to play the remainder of the game with 14 players.
From the penalty Lam conceded, Japan executed a successful lineout and showed its rolling maul was in good working order. The red and white jerseys rampaged over the line from five meters out. Captain Kazuki Himeno was credited with scoring the try.
After 13 consecutive successful kicks at goal, Matsuda showed he was human by failing to convert from the right touchline. Still, Japan held a commanding 22-8 lead.
A scrum penalty quickly presented Matsuda with the chance to get another successful kicking streak started and he duly obliged, increasing Japan's lead to 17 points.
Samoa Hits Back Before Full Time
Samoa got itself back into contention by giving Japan a dose of its own medicine in the 64th minute.
Quickly getting the ball out from a scrum of their own, the Samoans played pick-and-go rugby as they rampaged 40 meters up the middle of the field.
After nine phases of play, fullback Duncan Paia'aua scored in the left corner before Leali'ifano converted. Samoa was now within 10 points and looking dangerous.
Japan was awarded a kickable penalty with six minutes to play. Would it kick for the lineout in search of the bonus point clinching a fourth try? Or would it just nudge the lead to 13 points with the easy kick from the tee?
The answer was it would take the easy three. Matsuda once again did his job and Samoa needed two converted tries in six minutes to deny Japan a bonus point.
Samoa couldn't manage that, but it did score one more try. Leali'ifano scored and converted to give his nation hope in the final 90 seconds. But that would be the last of the scoring.
Lemeki Named Player of the Match
Japan's backup fullback had a fine match and he will have the No 15 jersey for his team for as long as the Brave Blossoms remain in the tournament. Semisi Masirewa's leg injury, sustained against England, has ruled him out of further participation in France.
Lemeki's post-match interview was shown on the world feed broadcast.
"We put a lot of emphasis on this game," Lemeki said.
"It's pretty much knockout footy for us now, so this was the first step and next week we've got to try and beat a tough Argentina team as well," the fullback concluded before thanking all the fans watching in Japan.
Pundits' Views from the UK
Broadcaster ITV shows the Rugby World Cup in the UK and its studio guests spoke positively about Japan's play after the match.
Former England international Lawrence Dallaglio had this to say: "Japan played with a lot more freedom and they deserved it. They had the key players in the game. It was a lot closer than it should have been in the end. Japan were deserved winners."
He added: "You get the feeling with Japan that they have a bit of momentum now."
Ex-Scotland scrum-half Greig Laidlaw also commented: "Japan got real momentum in the first half. Samoa's discipline cost them in this game. Lemeki showed what a dangerous player he is. He has a beautiful sidestep and big power. If Japan are going to win against Argentina, they will need him to get his hands on the ball."
Laidlaw added, "Japan had good balance tonight in terms of when they kicked and when they ran the ball."
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Author: Colin Morrison
Morrison is a freelance sportswriter. Find his stories on SportsLook. Writing since 2016, Morrison's byline also appears on boxing website NYFights.com and multi-sports platform Spitballingpod.com. His main areas of interest are boxing, soccer, golf and rugby union. Morrison is from Scotland and can be found on X (formerly Twitter) @Morrie1981.