Late callup scores winning try as Japan stuns Ireland
SHIZUOKA, Japan (AP) — Kenki Fukuoka was supposed to be a spectator at Shizuoka Stadium.
The star winger strained his calf three weeks ago, limped early out of the warmup match against South Africa and ended up in hospital. He missed Japan’s Rugby World Cup-opening win over Russia last week, and was also supposed to just be watching Ireland from the sideline on Saturday.
But then starting left wing William Tupou injured his left hamstring in the morning and was withdrawn. Lomano Lava Lemeki was promoted from the reserves, and Fukuoka was told to get dressed.
“We had a plan to use him against Samoa (next weekend) and we accelerated that a bit,” coach Jamie Joseph said. “I remember his first touch and he took it forward and broke away. If he’d played a bit more rugby, I think he would have scored.”
With his second touch he did score — the match-winner — as Japan stunned Ireland 19-12.
“I’m filled with joy as all the hard work (to recover) paid off,” Fukuoka said. “I targeted being fit for this game doing the rehabs. The callup came suddenly, but I was prepared.”
Fukuoka was sent on in the 50th minute with Japan trailing Ireland 12-9. Nine minutes later he was a hero.
Japan made a few rucks from a scrum in the Irish 22 when inside center Ryoto Nakamura, noticing the Irish defense up quick but too close in, fired a flat miss-pass to center Timothy Lafaele, who in the act of being collared flicked on even quicker to an unmarked Fukuoka to stroll over untouched. As Japanese fans erupted in the stands, he was enveloped by grateful teammates.
“My teammates put their bodies on the line and all I had to do was ground it,” he said. “I want to thank everyone. The last pass was fantastic.”
He wasn’t finished yet, though. Fukuoka had a chance to put the Irish away for good when Lafaele forced a loose pass from Jordan Larmour which Fukuoka intercepted 60 meters out. Fukuoka would have normally expected to burn off the meters but limited training after the calf injury got him only 55 meters. Still, he earned Japan a penalty which pushed them seven points ahead with seven minutes to go.
“It would have been better if I could finish it but I was still some way off, condition-wise,” he said. “I’d like to finish it off if I get the next chance.”
Fukuoka was only a backup in the 2015 World Cup squad and appeared only once, in the only game Japan lost, to Scotland. Since that tournament, he’s played for Japan at the Olympics and scored 10 tries in 17 tests. He’s a starter now, when he hasn’t strained something. For sure, he will get another chance in this Rugby World Cup.