Dream still on: Wondrous Japan gets win, bonus point v Samoa
TOYOTA, Japan (AP) — Surely Japan must be in love with rugby by now.
The Rugby World Cup host produced another wondrous display on Saturday to beat a ferocious Samoa with an immense effort, enhancing Japan’s chances of becoming the first Asian team to make the quarterfinals.
And it could do it at rugby’s first showpiece in Asia.
Japan is a step closer after winning a bruiser of an encounter 38-19 against the proud Samoans. But the game wasn’t won until five minutes from the end when replacement winger Kenki Fukuoka scrambled in at the right corner to subdue Samoa’s fightback.
And even that wasn’t the final drama.
Almost five minutes after the clock ticked past 80 minutes at the City of Toyota Stadium, the relentless Japanese clinched a four-try bonus point through star wing Kotaro Matsushima that could be crucial in the final reckoning in Pool A.
It could be the difference between a brave showing and rugby history.
Japan has three wins from three and only a game against Scotland between it and the last eight now. Japan leads the pool with 14 points, but Ireland, which has one game left, and Scotland, which has two, could still both overtake the host. It’s not certain what Japan will need to do yet in that final game as Scotland still has to play its penultimate game, against underdog Russia on Wednesday.
“It’s obviously better having the bonus point than not having it,” Japan coach Jamie Joseph said. “It was difficult to get and it may be important.”
Japan also won three pool games at the last World Cup and still missed out on the quarterfinals, to Scotland because of bonus points. The Japanese know about fine margins.
The home team qualifying for the quarterfinals would set off a party of epic proportions in the host country, where rugby isn’t historically the No. 1 sport. Or even No. 2. It must be top right now and for at least the next week until Japan vs. Scotland in Yokohama next Sunday, and likely in front of 70,000 fans.
Japan is enraptured with the game on the evidence of the crowd on Saturday as nearly 40,000 — just about the maximum the stadium could hold — lived every moment. Fans groaned as one every time Samoa threatened, and roared when Japan won back the ball or stopped the Samoans in a tackle. The crowd’s roars might even have lifted off the stadium’s retractable roof — if it had been closed.
“Behind the scenes, that’s what we knew could happen if we won test matches and that’s hugely helpful,” Joseph said of the growing support for his team across Japan. “It makes us incredibly proud that we’re representing 120 million people, and the majority don’t really support rugby. That makes us proud.
“It’s a tailwind for the team because nobody thought we would be here.”
Bitterly disappointed, Samoa coach Steve Jackson could appreciate the moment.
“To be part of that it is something we’ve probably never experienced before,” he said. “The crowd was amazing.”
Japan has pulled off bigger results in isolation: Against Ireland a week ago, for one, and against the two-time champion Springboks at the World Cup four years ago.
But Saturday in Toyota the Japanese were favorites and the pressure bore down on them to not mess up. They didn’t but left everyone guessing right until the end.
“A week ago no one thought we could win a game,” Joseph said, “and now everyone thinks we can win every game. That’s how silly it’s become.”
Samoa and Russia are out of contention, with this loss eliminating Samoa.
Japan scored its first three tries against Samoa through center Timothy Lafaele, No. 8 Kazuki Himeno and Fukuoka, the star of that shock win over Ireland that really got Japan believing.
Here, his score produced relief more than anything when it sealed a victory that looked certain with Japan 26-12 up, and then not so certain when Samoa made it 26-19 with seven minutes to go.
With home nerves jangling, the two speedy wingers, substitute Fukuoka and then Matsushima, delivered the final thrills. Samoa had tested Japan’s nerves and commitment at every stage.
Japan made Samoa pay for a yellow card to flanker TJ Ioane when Lafaele — born in Samoa — scored the first try near the corner in the first half to give the Japanese enough of an advantage to cling to.
But Samoa set up the finish when center Henry Taefu spun out of a tackle and went over. He added the two points to make it just a converted try between the teams.
Japan responded by turning over possession from the restart, surging to within a meter, and then sending Fukuoka in from an overlap out on the right.
Matsushima’s try might be the quarterfinal-clincher. That came after Japan, pushing for the bonus point, lost the ball and Samoa had a scrum on its five-meter line.
Deep in time added on, Japan summoned one more thrust from its outstanding forwards and won possession back through a free kick. It scrummed again, and moved the ball left to the short side, where Matsushima slipped through a half-gap.
From that moment it was all about Scotland.
“I think it was always going to come down to the final game,” Joseph said. “It’s building up to be a real ripper. I can’t wait and I know the players can’t wait because we’ve been subconsciously thinking about it for a couple of years now.”