Japan ran in four tries with some dazzling rugby before holding off Scotlands second-half revival to win a thriller 28-21 and qualify as pool winners

Some results deserve to be lit up in neon and this historic victory for Japan was one of them. Never before has any team from Asia reached the quarter-finals of a Rugby World Cup, let alone played such an inspirational brand of rugby. This was not just an emotional occasion for the host nation but an electrifying moment for the global game as a whole.

Because this was finally the day when the patronising tier two label still used by some to denote Japans status in the sport officially ceased to exist. As was the case against Ireland, the Brave Blossoms were irresistible at times and were more than good value for their four-try success against a Scotland team who, for only the second time, are going home before the knockout stages commence.

Japan now face South Africa in the last eight on Sunday, four years on from their famous 2015 win against the Springboks in Brighton.

The backdrop to the whole occasion made this arguably even more special. Less than 12 hours earlier the fixture had still been in serious doubt, with Japan still reeling from the aftermath of Typhoon Hagibis that had left both death and destruction in its wake. Rugby, at such times, is usually an afterthought but Jamie Josephs inspiring team are providing their nation with at least a measure of solace.

And it was Scotland who were on the receiving end. It was less a case of them playing or defending poorly and more another object lesson in Japanese excellence.

The wing Kenki Fukuoka, scorer of the try that skewered the Irish, added two more big-occasion tries to his collection and he and his teammates led 28-7 at one stage before Gregor Townsends side mounted a valiant second-half fightback.

Any team in the world would have loved to play as Japan did in the first half. Quick, smart, precise and innovative they were a credit to Joseph and his long-time coaching partner Tony Brown and rapidly forced Scotland into damage limitation mode. Despite an encouraging early score by Finn Russell, who had almost set up Darcy Graham for a try a few moments previously, the hosts were a red and white blur of constant motion and their three first-half tries were all out of the top drawer.

Japan
Zander Fagerson runs in to score Scotlands third try against Japan. Photograph: Eugene Hoshiko/AP

As if Fukuokas offload for the first try by the increasingly prolific Kotaro Matsushima was not special enough, Japan were soon barrelling through the middle and Luke Thompson put his loosehead prop Keita Inagaki over by the posts. They would have been further ahead had Yu Tamura not missed a couple of penalty attempts but Scotland were not spared for long.

With half-time approaching Japan poured forward down the left once more and the excellent Timothy Lafaele put in a neat grubber behind the Scottish defensive line. The ball bounced a little higher than Fukuoka might have liked but the buzzing winger still gathered it one-handed and surged past Stuart Hogg to score his sides third try.

Scotland could hardly complain about the 21-7 half-time margin, with Japan having enjoyed three-quarters of territory and possession and carried for 339 metres compared to 54. If they were relieved to see Jonny Gray avoid a card of any colour after a clash of heads with Shota Horie, they had increasingly little answer as Japan, with their skipper Michael Leitch again prominent, simply raised the tempo by another notch.

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Within three minutes of the restart the Scottish centre Chris Harris was collared in his own half, had the ball ripped from his horrified grasp and Fukuoka tore unstoppably away for the try bonus point that effectively sealed Scotlands fate.

With the Scots also needing to win by more than seven points to make the qualification equation work, they basically required another Twickenham-style second-half resurrection. For a second or two, they hinted at a similar miracle.

First the prop WP Nel crashed unstoppably over and then Russell, having taken a quick throw himself, sparked a glorious counterattack which ended with replacement Zander Fagerson scoring his sides third try. The two blue-shirted flankers Jamie Ritchie and Magnus Bradbury could scarcely have given more but, ultimately, a couple of costly final-quarter errors killed both their momentum and their whole campaign.

At least they were involved in one of the great World Cup occasions. From the pre-match silence in remembrance of the typhoons victims to the hair-on-the-neck emotion of the Japanese anthem and the vivid nature of the rugby, this was as good as anything at this tournament to date and up there among the most evocative spectacles the game has known. Maybe Frances comeback at Twickenham against New Zealand 20 years ago was more stunningly executed but not since South Africa won on home soil in 1995 has a host nation raised their game to such thrilling effect.

At the final whistle, it really did feel as if rugby in Japan and had ascended to a whole new level. Were Scotland unlucky? Hardly. This was the first time they have lost a capped Test to Japan. On this evidence, it is unlikely to be the last.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

 

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