WHANGAREI, NEW ZEALAND – Japan fly-half James Arlidge might have won the hearts of Rugby World Cup spectators as man of the match against France, but facing Tonga, Arlidge’s boot proved to be unreliable for the Brave Blossoms.
Arlidge missed conversions that ensured the Japanese would fall from striking distance as the game went on. Japan fell 31-18 to the Tongans in their third match at the Rugby World Cup, before a sellout crowd of 17,364 at tiny Northland Events Centre.
A fire ignited in the final 10 minutes, just above the northern terrace stands, adding to the excitement in a Tonga-dominated second half. Arlidge and the Japanese could have used some fire of their own as they hunted for a victory.
Instead, local officials contained the blaze quickly, before any spectators fell into harm’s way, and Japan’s winless World Cup run continued.
The game was an exciting affair, where two clearly different styles clashed, with a physical Tonga dominating in the forwards, and a dynamic Japan trying to break away in the backs. However, this time, Tonga was more up to the task.
Japan’s reputation as one of Group A’s speediest sides forced the Tongans to play a disciplined brand of rugby. The Brave Blossoms didn’t fully live up to expectations on that front.
“We expected them to be faster,” Tongan lock Paino Hehea said. “We knew they were going to be quick, and we were really organized.”
An early handling error put the Japanese team under pressure deep in their territory, yielding Tonga’s first try in the seventh minute by No. 8 Viliami Ma’afu.
However, Japan was quick to counterattack, with a rolling maul over the try line in the 14th minute that Italian Television Match Official Giulio de Santis awarded as a try to Japan prop Kensuke Hatakeyama.
Just one minute later, Tonga’s answer was an exciting runaway, from which Tonga lock Tukulua Lokotui touched down in the wide left, and Morath converted.
Japan, meanwhile, struggled with conversions, which haunted the Brave Blossoms later as the Tongans were able to pull away.
Turning tables 10 minutes later, Japan’s openside flanker Michael Leitch finished a very well-orchestrated try where the ball was passed down to the far right from Arlidge, to Webb, setting up Leitch for the finish.
However, Arlidge missed both this conversion, and his previous attempt, only to be sent to sin bin two minutes later for repeated offside infringements.
Arlidge left his team for ten minutes, and the Blossoms endured two penalty kicks from Morath against one by Japan fullback Shaun Webb, that sent the two teams to halftime with Tonga leading 18-13.
The Braves Blossoms impressed again in the 64th minute, when Japan’s outside center Alisi Tupuailei, himself of Samoan descent, crashed through Tongan defense to score Japan’s final try. Once again, Arlidge failed to convert.
Otherwise, Tonga dominated the second half, Morath keeping a good form with the boot, placing two penalties in the 50th and 68th minutes as well as converting right wing Fetu’u Vainikolo’s try in the 54th.
Morath’s precision contrasted with Arlidge’s bad day with the boot, sealing the game for Tonga. The Tongans’ dominance at the breakdown was also unmatched by Japan, who still seeks to win a Rugby World Cup game after 20 years.
“I feel so bad about this. It’s not like they were too strong or unbeatable. Each and every play of the game just added up in the end,” Japan scrum half Fumiaki Tanaka said. “We didn’t feel like we were under that much pressure. We couldn’t play our usual Japanese style.”
While Japan’s original aim was to beat Tonga and Canada, and thereby automatically qualify for the next World Cup, the Brave Blossoms can still try to bring home one victory, and entertain the crowds with their flowing style, against the Canadians. The Blossoms will close World Cup play on Tuesday, at McLean Park in Napier.