Japan proved it’s ready to mix it with the big boys of world rugby Saturday, beating Italy 26-23 to pick up the team’s 10th straight win and first ever over the Azzurri.
Inspired by some tremendous scrummaging the Brave Blossoms battered the opposition into submission, forcing the Italians to make a number of errors and ensuring the hosts never trailed in a game played in front of 13,816 at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground.
Akihito Yamada and Male Sa’u both scored tries and Ayumu Goromaru added four penalties and two conversions as Japan made it two wins in a year over Six Nations opponents (the third time overall), having beaten Wales last year at the same venue.
But unlike last year, when the Welsh could claim a number of their top players were away with the British and Irish Lions, this was pretty much the strongest side the Italians could put out bar injuries.
“All credit to Japan, they played very well,” said Italy captain Quintin Geldenhuys. “But we are disappointed in ourselves. Every time we went wide we lost the ball and that is unacceptable.”
As Geldenhuys admitted, however, part of that was down to the pressure the Italian halfbacks were under as Japan scrumhalf Fumiaki Tanaka proved to be the Jack Russell to flanker Justin Ives’ Doberman around the fringes.
“We showed plenty of courage out there,” said Japan head coach Eddie Jones, though he admitted his side’s performance left much to be desired, particularly early on.
“We didn’t handle the pressure well at the start, but regained our composure,” he said.
Jones went on to say the key to the victory was the performance of the forwards in the scrum.
“In test match rugby you need to find areas you can win and maximize those areas and I thought we did that well in the end.”
When pressed as to what areas Japan pushed forward its advantage, the 54-year-old said, “Definitely the scrum. We had the advantage there and took it. Apart from that not much else. But it is a testament to the team that we can win when things aren’t going well.”
The start of the game belied the fact that it was the hosts on a record winning streak and the visitors on an 8-match losing run, as Japan fluffed the kick-off, lost its opening line out and looked a wee bit unsteady at the scrum.
But Yamada’s try in the fourth minute — following a good break by Ryu Koliniasi Holani — helped settle the early nerves.
Yamada soon turned villain though as he was sent to the sin bin for a deliberate knock-on that saw Italy pull level at 10-10 following the resulting penalty try. And the teams went into the break all square at 13-13 after Goromaru and Luciano Orquera traded penalties.
The boot of the two kickers then dominated the early part of the second stanza before Sa’u finished off a period of sustained pressure, the Yamaha Jubilo and Rebels center using his strength and speed to go over the whitewash as Japan finally sucked in the Italian defense to create numbers out wide.
Some sloppy defense allowed Robert Barbieri to cross with six minutes left as the visitors looked to ruin the local fans’ day in the sun. But Japan’s forwards held firm and a big scrum at the end ensured there was no way back for Italy.
“It was a hard day at the office,” said a relieved Jones. “But test match rugby is all about winning.”