AUCKLAND – Japan earned some respect from a European rival, even if it fell short of earning a victory.
Even if the final score of 47-21 of Japan’s loss to France might not show it, the Brave Blossoms played a tight and competitive game Saturday at North Harbour Stadium. For 10 minutes during the second half, Japan closed the gap to 25-21, taking the French by surprise and having the crowd of 28,569 believing that an upset was brewing in Pool A of the Rugby World Cup.
The victory would have been Japan’s first in World Cup play since 1991 against Zimbabwe, and the fans weren’t the only ones who Japan had thinking upset, for that matter.
“We were warned against the Japanese but we didn’t think they were that fast,” French wing Aurelien Rougerie said. “We knew they could play very fast, but we didn’t think they were that fast. They managed to play the ball very quickly and dynamically. They made good progress.”
The match was the World Cup opener for both sides, and the second overall after Tonga and All Blacks played to open the tournament Friday at Auckland’s Eden Park.
The match had more than its share of drama, much of which was the work of Brave Blossom James Arlidge. He scored all of Japan’s tries, a stunning effort that endeared him to the fans and saw him named MVP.
“It’s a great honor to be selected man of the match, a real effort,” Arlidge said. “It was surprising to me because I feel I’ve got work to do.”
Arlidge and his teammates may not be satisfied with Saturday’s result, but it was a step in the right direction.
Japan showed its determination from the beginning, eliciting great cheers with its brave attempts to break the French defensive line and fighting off the French attack. Japan, the only Asian team to participate in the tournament, nearly managed a 50-50 split in possession with Les Bleus.
However, France’s technical skill and size advantage showed its effects early on, yielding tries to lock Julien Pierre in the fourth minute, fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc in the 11th and wing Vincente Clerc in the 33rd. Scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili placed the first two conversions as well as converted both penalty kicks in the first half.
Arlidge seemed to be unlucky with his boot early on, missing one penalty out of three and a conversion of his own try in the first half. Arlidge scored a try in the 30th minute, after regaining the ball from an erroneous kick. That started his scoring sequence at the game that earned him MVP honors.
In the second half, France still did not seem to get back in form, struggling with handling errors, having two crossovers uncredited to their side by the television match official, as Japan defended the ball over the line.
Arlidge broke through again French defense in the 48th minute and converted his own try. The crowds went wild as the score between the two teams got dangerously close, and the French team seemed to start to worry about the final outcome.
However, France regained rhythm in the final 15 minutes, with Yachvili scoring a penalty kick in the 66th, and converting lock Lionel Nallet’s try in the 71st. Lock Pascal Pape and scrum half Morgan Parra finished off the game with two tries, Yachivili converted the Pape’s one.
“It is important for us to show that we are a competent team,” Japan coach John Kirwan said. “We look at this game as if we were equals. We will wake up tomorrow disappointed. We will work hard and look forward.”
England survived a ferocious Argentina side and a ragged performance of its own to open its Rugby World Cup campaign with a 13-9 win on Saturday.
Scrumhalf Ben Youngs came on as replacement and offered the spark that England had missed, finding a rare gap in the defense and darting over for the only try of the Pool B encounter.
Scotland tops Romania
Winger Simon Danielli scored two late tries to lead struggling Scotland to a 34-24 comeback win over Romania, avoiding the first major upset of the Rugby World Cup in only the second match.
Fiji beats Namibia
Winger Vereniki Goneva scored four tries in Fiji’s 49-25 win over Namibia in a World Cup Pool D match at sunny Rotorua International Stadium on Saturday.