JAPAN produced a stunning first half performance of typhoon like proportions to set up an outstanding 28-21 win over Scotland in the Pool A decider in front of a rapturous home crowd at the Yokohama Stadium that propels them into the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time.
Japan will come back here next Sunday to host the Springboks in an appetising sequel to the most memorable game of the 2015 World Cup, when the minnows of world rugby pulled off one of the biggest upsets of all time.
Make no mistake it would still be a major surprise if Japan repeat that feat next week. But on the basis of the way they have played at this tournament, and particularly tonight in front of 67 000 rapturous fans who produced a cacophonous yet rhythmical din that was only ever silenced when a kicker lined a kick for posts, it wouldn’t be nearly the shock it was four years ago.
The Boks should know what they are up against next Sunday – it isn’t just the Japanese team, but the whole Japanese nation, who have thrown themselves behind their team in the same manner that South Africans famously did their team back in 1995.
This game was in the balance until fairly late on the morning of the match as World Rugby and the Japanese Organising Committee assessed the damage wreaked by Typhoon Hagibis that passed through Japan on Saturday night. Thank goodness they decided to go ahead for this was surely the match of the tournament so far, with the Scots also playing their part with their never say die attitude.
The way Japan play is reminiscent of the way the late great Smoking Joe Frazier used to box. To some it up they are just as busy as bees, constantly probing and stretching defences with their blend of speed and sublime ball skills. They are astoundingly fit, something they first showed with the way they ran the ball from everywhere against the Scots in the first half and then their busy, aggressive and unrelenting defence when Scotland came back at them later on.
Scotland were first to score when Japan produced a rare defensive error to let flyhalf Finn Russell through for the try that put the visitors 7-0 ahead after seven minutes. But then for the next 40 odd minutes it was all Japan, as they scored four unanswered tries and 28 unanswered points.
Their passing game always threatened to outflank the Scots and sure enough, after 17 minutes left wing Kenki Fukuoka was away down the left. With a man to beat he transferred inside to his fellow wing Kotaro Matsushima who ran through to score.
Yu Tamura had missed a penalty a minute or two earlier but this time he made no mistake with the angled conversion and the scores were level. Japan were never headed again. They took the lead through a stunning attack through the middle that saw prop Keita Inagaki score between the posts, and then it was Kukuoka’s turn to get on the scoreboard as he was set up by an excellent grubber from outside centre Timothy Lefaele, who was at the heart of much that went right for Japan on attack.
Japan took a 21-7 lead to the break and they needed to respond quickly after the break. But they had won only 25 percent possession in the first half and when the Scotland players did have the ball the quickly advancing Japanese defensive system was all over them. And it was that kind of aggressive defence that saw Fukuoka dispossess a Scotland player in the tackle and then use his pace to run in the try.
At 28-7 Japan were sailing, and as it was their bonus point try, it was also a significant moment in the game. For Japan to be knocked out of the World Cup, they needed to be kept to a minimum of one log point. So it meant that at that point Scotland needed to win by eight.
They fought their way back manfully and scored two tries through front-row forwards to set up a thrilling last quarter. Somehow though with the crowd behind them and with their energy levels so high, it just always looked as though Japan would prevail, and they did.
Roll on next Sunday. If the quarterfinal is anything like this it will be a game we’ll all remember for a very long time. Regardless though of next week’s result, Japan have exceeded all expectations at their own World Cup, and have done so playing an admirable brand of rugby. — SuperSport