Brief relief for Japan and Joseph ahead of final reckoning

TOYOTA, Japan (AP) — Japan coach Jamie Joseph and his players have no time to bask in their latest win at the Rugby World Cup.

The best they can get is some brief relief before the final reckoning, a game against Scotland next Sunday which will likely decide if Japan makes rugby history.

Joseph has led Asia’s first Rugby World Cup host to the brink of its first quarterfinal with three wins from three, including a stunning victory over Ireland last weekend and Saturday’s pulsating bonus-point win against Samoa.

Three wins were good enough to take England into the quarterfinals from their pool on Saturday, but not for Japan.

It looks like coming down to the last game in Pool A — against Scotland, the team that took a quarterfinal place from under Japan’s noses at the last World Cup.

Japan, so disciplined and accurate against Ireland, was a little excitable in the first half against the Samoans in Toyota and Joseph, a no-nonsense former All Blacks loose forward, had to rein his players in a little at halftime.

The players can be forgiven for their excitement, carried away maybe on the growing wave of support in a country that wasn’t sure what to expect from its first Rugby World Cup, but is loving it now.

“I personally feel very proud and a little bit relieved as well,” said Joseph after the Samoa challenge had been overcome. “We were a little bit frantic in the first half and we didn’t do what we wanted to do. It was bits and pieces. But in the second half we were able to take control.”

Flanker Pieter Labuschagne agreed on that.

“It went seesaw for a bit,” Labuschagne said.

Japan righted the performance, Joseph said, with the help of everyone. A team effort.

Japan is looking for heroes right now and try-scoring wings Kotaro Matsushima and Kenki Fukuoka fit the bill. As does hard-working second-rower James Moore and returning flanker Michael Leitch, the squad captain who shared the on-field duties with Labuschagne against Samoa.

But Joseph picked out another less obvious name, reserve prop Isileli Nakajima, who came on as a replacement in the second half and anchored a crucial scrum at the end when Japan turned over Samoa to give it the chance to score its bonus-point fourth try.

Joseph said Nakajima used to be a No. 8 until the Japan management decided to change his position and converted him to a prop just months before the Rugby World Cup.

“To win a test match for a player who’s only been doing that for a few months, well it’s unbelievable really,” Joseph said. “So, that’s a story in itself.”