Japan in Pool A driving seat after bonus point win over Samoa
Pressure returned to Ireland and Scotland after hosts do their bit in Toyota City
Japan’s Kenki Fukuoka runs in to score a try during the 2019 Rugby World Cup Pool A match against Samoa. Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Getty Images
Jaco Peyper, the South African referee, penalised a Samoa scrum five metres from their try line deep in injury time for crooked feed. It’s a decision that could have monumental implications on the final shape of Pool A.
Japan, with 127 million people behind them, packed down and after re-setting following a penalty, heroic winger Kotaro Matsushima skidded over to secure the vital bonus point.
Victory puts Japan top of Ireland’s group, three points clear of Joe Schmidt’s men, with one match still to play. Scotland are expected to face Japan in Yokohama on October 13th with 10 points, presuming they take a bonus point win off Russia, which would leave them one shy of Ireland, who face Samoa in Fukuoka on October 12th.
Matsushima’s try, and Peyper’s decision, is forever etched in World Cup annals. It means every single moment matters in the remaining three games.
To the game, and a historic night for the sport of rugby in Asia.
Japan are the hardest working people on earth. From dawn til dusk they beaver away. The pursuit of that late bonus had Brave Blossoms locked-in with Saturday night pubs rammed all over the country.
It’s official. This has gripped the Nippon nation.
Samoa - be afraid Ireland, be very afraid - showed unbelievable courage to stay with them, in what was the ultimate mano-a-mano contest.
World Rugby talk about cracking the new markets, about how the status quo would never be the same again. We are witnessing this now.
Ireland, and Samoa, are mere victims along the road. Only Gregor Townsend’s Scots can stop Japan’s climb to the top table.
The methodology is systematic.
Click! They poured into Koromo from every corner of the Aichi Prefecture. Quietly dreaming on the subway before the moment to deliver arrived. This all feels pre-planned, as if Japanese roots are conveying energy from players to supporters and back onto the field.
When Yu Tamura put the hosts into a 9-6 lead the crowd awoke. Twenty-three minutes clocked and the same roar went up to attack Samoa from all angles that Ireland felt in Shizuoka.
Matsushima, taking up the challenge laid down by Springbok sensation Cheslin Kolbe the night before - this is the World Cup of monstrous men and mosquito wingers - was dancing and stinging at every opportunity. Sale Sharks openside TJ Ioane wanted to hurt the danger man but the timing was desperately irresponsible and put the other 14 Samoans under awful stress.
“Sorry boys,” said Ioane as he departed for 10 minutes.
Click! Japan attacked from every imaginable angle. It felt like each act, every decoy run, was programmed. Michael Leitch continued his Captain Invincible role by ripping ball clean from the opposition ruck. Matsushima bounced up, after being grounded but not held by two huge Samoans, the torpedo exploding inches shy of the line. James Moore, the Australian-born lock, tried to finish it off but Samoa’s defence was beyond bravery. Still, a ferocious ruck delivered rapid possession for scrumhalf Yutaka Nagere.
The try that lit the torch was finished by Samoan born centre Timothy Lafaele.
That brought the masses out of their shells. The flow of pressure keeps on shifting. Steve Hansen warned us all. Most nations are unable to carry the tag of favourites.
Japan can handle it. Japan do not lack for confidence in themselves.
Certainly not anymore.
They started smoothly with Yu Tamura - baseball shortstop turned outhalf - smacking them into a six-zip lead after seven minutes.
But the Pacific Island warriors ignored the script. Henry Taefu continued his public job interview process with steely nerve off the kicking tee. The centre had Samoa level on 15 minutes.
Japan’s joy at the breakdown against Ireland disappeared. Three of the first four penalties were a reward for Samoan muscle over the ball.
Eventually, Jack Lam’s risk reward actions were punished as Tamura made it 9-6.
Then the hosts clicked into gear.
People keep talking about tier one and tier two nations. “There is no such thing at the World Cup,” said Samoa coach Steve Jackson after defeat to Scotland. The former Maori lock never uttered truer words.
This was Test match rugby. Taefu inched Samoa back into the contest with his fourth penalty, from five attempts, early in the second half, and just as Ioane returned.
Moments after Tamura’s first miss he atoned with a clean strike to make it 19-12 on 51 minutes, Japan coach Jamie Joseph unleashed his Tongan props on the Samoans.
The pay-off was instantaneous as Kazuki Himeno was driven over off by a flawless lineout maul. The Mexican Wave dominoed about this five tier stadium, pausing to cheer Tamura’s difficult conversion sailing between the posts.
The bonus point seemed impossible at this juncture.
Deep inside Ireland’s Fukuoka bunker Joe Schmidt was watching. Not bothering to study the soaring hosts, irrelevant to him now, but Samoa’s refusal to fade. They are a decent side, facing all the barriers Japan have removed, but it’s guaranteed that the proudest of rugby nations will hunt down Johnny Sexton and Ireland before scattering to whatever foreign clubs will have them mid-season. They may yet prove Schmidt’s worst nightmare to finish off Pool A.
Taefu’s late try deepens this fear.
Leitch and Himeno had to produce their most epic moments to quell the Islanders on the hour mark (when a score would have rattled the nerves once again). The crowd went ballistic when Peyper awarded a relieving penalty. If noise decibels are any indication the Nippon nation love these defensive reversals as much, if not more, than the tries.
The hardest working people in the world, from dawn til dusk, they refused to give Samoa the final say. And there he was again, the poster boy, Mr 23, Kenki Fukuoka scrabbling over in the corner on 75 minutes.
There didn’t seem like enough time to grab the bonus but Peyper made the big call. Japan profited.
They have been gifted an eight day rest until facing Scotland - who have a treacherous four-day turnaround after Russia - in what promises to be a game for the ages in Yokohama.
By then Ireland will have lost total control of their World Cup fate.
Scoring sequence – 3 mins: Y Tamura pen, 3-0; 7 mins: Y Tamura pen, 6-0; 9 mins: H Taefu pen, 6-3; 15 mins: H Taefu pen, 6-6; 23 mins: Y Tamura pen, 9-6; 24 mins: T Lafaele try, 14-6; Y Tamura con, 16-6; 34 mins: H Taefu pen, 16-9. Half-time. 44 mins: T Taefu pen, 16-12; 51 mins: Y Tamura pen, 19-12; 53 mins: K Himeno try, 24-12; Y Timura con, 26-12; 72 mins: H Taefu try, 26-17; H Taefu con, 26-19; 75 mins: K Fukuoka try, 31-19; 85 mins: K Matsushima try, 36-19; Y Tamura con, 38-19.
Japan: Ryohei Yamanaka; Kotaro Matsushima, Timothy Lafaele, Ryoto Nakamura, Lomano Lemeki; Yu Tamura, Yutaka Nagare; Keita Inagaki, Atsushi Sakate, Jiwon Koo; Wimpie van der Walt, James Moore; Michael Leitch, Pieter Labuschagne (capt), Kazuki Himeno.
Replacements: Shota Horie for Sakate (41 mins), Asaeli Ai Valu for Koo, Isileli Nakajima for Inagaki (both 51 mins), Kenki Fukuoka for Yamanaka (56 mins), Fumiaki Tanaka for Nagare, Hendrik Tui for Leitch (both 63 mins), Uwe Helu for Wimpie van der Walt (67 mins), Rikiya Matsuda for Nakamura (69 mins).
Samoa: Tim Nanai-Williams; Ah See Tuala, Alapati Leiua, Henry Taefu, Ed Fidow; Ulupano Seuteni, Dwayne Polataivao; Jordan Lay, Seilala Lam, Michael Alaalatoa; Piula Faasalele, Kane Le’aupepe; Chris Vui, TJ Ioane, Jack Lam (capt).
Replacements: Kieron Fonotia for Nanai-Williams (39 mins), Tusi Pisi for See Tuala (53 mins), Ray Niuia for S Lam, Paul Alo-Emile for Alaalatoa (both 56 mins), Senio Toleafoa for Faasalele (60 mins), James Lay for Jordan Lay, Pele Cowley for Polataivao (both 65 mins), Josh Tyrell for Ioane (69 mins). Yellow card: TJ Ioane (24-34 mins).
Referee: Jaco Peyper (RSA).