NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND – Japan’s Pool A World Cup finale had a “been there, done that” feeling for Japan.
After the tournament began with such promise for the Brave Blossoms, the stale atmosphere of Japan’s 23-23 draw against Canada at McLean Park was a bitter, but familiar, way to conclude.
A draw against Canada, a team the Blossoms fully expected to beat, was perhaps the best way to show that Japanese rugby hadn’t yet taken the great leap forward everyone believed it had after pushing France to the limit in the opener.
Japan ended the 2007 Rugby World Cup in Bordeaux with a 12-12 draw against the Canadians, and Tuesday, history repeated itself.
However, this time the mood on the Japan squad was different. Japan was unable to achieve any of the goals it set four years ago: win at least two games at the 2011 Cup or automatically qualify for 2015.
Japan failed to win even a single game, ensuring the Blossoms’ winless World Cup run, tolling since they beat Zimbabwe in 1991, would continue. The players and supporters seemed less than enthusiastic about their team’s exit, led by head coach John Kirwan.
Coaching in his native country, Kirwan began this tournament as the toast of New Zealand, turning the Blossoms into local darlings after their run at Les Bleus. His team, however, ended the tournament nonplussed.
“I thought we’d done enough to win the game,” Kirwan said. “I don’t think we eased off at all. I think Canada showed desperation.
“We had the game, I thought we should have won it, but we had a few too many errors in the second half. I don’t know whether to be happy or sad.”
Japan held a comfortable 17-7 lead at halftime, placing two tries in response to Canadian outside center DTH Van Der Merwe’s score in the seventh minute. Canadian fullback James Pritchard converted, putting the Blossoms in an early deficit.
Japan pushed over its first try only four minutes later, and the video referee awarded the try to Japan hooker Shota Horie from the team effort, which Japan fly half James Arlidge converted.
Moments before halftime, Japan inside center Ryan Nicholas offloaded the ball to Arlidge who set up Japan right wing Kosuke Endo for a try in between the posts to give Japan the lead. Arlidge converted with ease, pushing the Blossoms’ advantage to 10.
From there, Japan couldn’t maintain control, but it didn’t officially lose it until the very end of a mistake-riddled second half.
“From our perspective I thought we played some reasonable rugby in the first half, but our handling errors let us down and put the pressure straight back,” said Canada coach Kieran Crowley, Kirwan’s former All Blacks teammate.
“The second half, we didn’t play it as smart as we should have. It wasn’t until the last 10 minutes that we started to move the ball outside those inside channels and we started to create a bit of go forward. Disappointed in that aspect, but pleased that we get two points out of it.”
In the second half, both teams powered up their defense, as Canada left wing Phil Mackenzie placed an individual try running with the ball from a candid pass from Canada fly half Ander Monro, who also converted.
The rest of Canada’s points all came from Monro, who placed a penalty in the 64th, which was answered by Arlidge’s penalties in the 66th and 73rd minutes. His efforts seemed to have sealed the deal, putting Japan eight points ahead just 8 minutes before full time.
However, Canada didn’t surrender, as the video referee ruled a try to Monro in the 75th minute. Monro failed to convert, but nailed a penalty kick in the 79th to knot up the score. Alridge couldn’t place a drop goal in the final minute, confirming his team’s World Cup exit and the expected end of the Kirwan era.
Japan seeks changes
Japan rugby general manager Osamu Ota said Tuesday he does not plan to renew the contract of head coach John Kirwan, who failed to lead the Japanese team to any victories at the ongoing World Cup.
“I feel responsible. We have no choice but to begin looking for new leadership,” said Ota, who also indicated his intention to step down.
“We wanted the team to progress a step forward but it is stagnant. . .”
Kirwan, who was part of New Zealand’s World Cup-winning squad at the inaugural tournament in 1987, ends his contract as the Japan coach this year.
Italy tops U.S.
Italy labored to a 27-10 win over the United States on Tuesday.
History-chasing Italy needed a win and bonus point against the U.S. to ensure the clash with Ireland this Sunday will be a playoff for the quarterfinals. Italy can make the last eight for the first time with a win, while Ireland can advance with at least a draw.