OSAKA – Japan got the hard physical game it wanted leading into it upcoming Rugby World Cup qualifiers, but it didn’t get the result it was after as a Brave Blossoms XV went down 35-29 to Asia Pacific Dragons on Saturday.
Pacific flair won out on a glorious spring day at Hanazono Stadium as Japan lived up to its reputation as being a host that will do anything to please its visitors.
Two blown chances in the first 25 minutes meant Japan failed to run up the insurmountable lead it should have, and once the Dragons dusted off the cobwebs, some poor defense allowed the likes of Tusi Pisi and Nili Latu to show just why the Pacific islanders are such a joy to watch.
“We wanted to play a hard physical pack and fast backs so it was a perfect training game,” said Japan coach Eddie Jones. “But we didn’t put enough pressure on them in defense and gave Tusi a free rein to do whatever he wanted.”
Despite the loss, Jones was still reasonably upbeat.
“Two years ago, if we had played that team we would have been beaten by 40 points as we would have lost all the scrums and given away easy tries. So it is a real step up for us.”
With 15 frontline players missing, it was always going to be a tough ask of the young Japanese backs to go up against players of the caliber and experience of Seilala Mapasua and Rupeni Caucaunibuca, and their lack of experience proved to be the team’s undoing.
The opening 25 minutes saw Japan dominate territory and possession with the Dragons rarely getting their hands on the ball.
Yet Japan led just 15-0, through tries by Shinya Makabe and Akihito Yamada and a conversion and penalty from Ryoto Nakamura.
“We should have been 30 points up after 25 minutes,” said Jones, adding that the rugby played by the students and those that have just graduated doesn’t prepare them for such a game.
And as the Dragons slowly got accustomed to one another — having only had two days of training — the game turned.
So Kilryong and Pisi both touched down in the space of two minutes, with Tadanobu Ko adding the extras to put just one point between the sides.
An intercept try by Hendrik Tui, converted by Nakamura, saw Japan go into the break 22-14. But the second half was dominated by the Dragons, as Tana Umaga’s substitutions paid dividends.
“Our bench came on and made a big difference,” said the All Blacks legend. “We took a risk as we put everyone on with 15 minutes to go but that was the plan.”
Sainivalati Ramuwai showed great pace to cross for the Dragons’ third try while the boots of Ko and Pisi kept the scoreboard ticking over, with Ko adding two penalties and a conversion and Pisi a superb 48-meter drop goal.
Yoshikazu Fujita gave Japan some hope when he was put over by Daishi Murata, who along with Nakamura was Japan’s standout player, but Latu sealed the win with a pushover try two minutes from time.
“In the first half we wanted to take the game to them and as Polynesians wanted to make the big hits,” said Latu. “But we were slow out of the blocks and they scored two tries from our own mistakes. In the second half we got back to our system and defended much better.”
Next week’s game against the Philippines should be a much easier affair for Japan, but Jones said he was “not taking anything for granted.”
“We learned two or three things about ourselves that we will address. We need a robust team that can work things out for themselves. But like everything good in life, it takes time.”