MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND – The “New Town” of Milton Keynes is known for its plethora of roundabouts.
On Saturday, a disciplined Japan boxed clever and ran rings around Samoa to keep its hopes of reaching the quarterfinals of the Rugby World Cup alive.
The Brave Blossoms’ 26-5 victory leaves them in the third spot in Pool B, three and two points behind South Africa and Scotland, respectively, after the Springboks’ 34-16 victory over the Scots in Newcastle. A win against the United States and a Samoan victory over Scotland would see Japan reach the last eight.
“If we are good enough we go through,” Japan coach Eddie Jones said after the game at Stadium MK and before the events unfurled at St. James’ Park.
“Let’s hope South Africa do the right thing today and Samoa do the right thing (against Scotland). But we don’t control those things. We always said we came to this tournament with two targets. One, to be the team of the tournament, and secondly to make the quarterfinals. If we win three games we will end up team of the tournament.”
Jones said before he left Japan that he was fed up with the Brave Blossoms moniker — in that most people just thought of the team as a courageous side that always lost.
Saturday’s win showed that while their bravery is still second to none, they are now, more importantly, a team that knows how to win at the highest level.
Japan finished the game with a flanker on the wing, a hooker at flanker and a wing in the center as the physical challenge of the Samoans took its toll.
The Pacific islanders may have left their mark on the Brave Blossoms’ bodies, but it was the mental strength of Jones’ team that ultimately paved the way for the win.
Jones said his side still has yet to play to its full potential, but the opening 40 minutes were just about perfect.
Japan’s tenacious start upset the Samoans so much they had two players sent to the sin bin and a penalty try, a five pointer from the swerving, diving Akihito Yamada and the boot of Ayumu Goromaru saw the Brave Blossoms turn around 20-0 up.
“I was pretty sure I went over so I wasn’t worried (about the TMO). It’s great to have the win amid all the attention we have been getting. Today was the result of the way we prepared for the past week,” said Yamada, whose game ended in the 55th minute when he was stretchered off after being knocked out.
“We came in with high hopes but our discipline cost us from the start,” said Samoa coach Stephen Betham.
Samoa did its best to reduce the gap in the second half but the Japan defense held firm. Paul Perez’s late try was nothing more than a consolation effort following two more penalties by Goromaru.
Luke Thompson made 16 tackles, Shota Horie 14 and Michael Broadhurst 10, not to mention a number of turnovers at the breakdown, while Kotaro Matsushima and Ryu Koliniasi Holani both made telling hits that forced turnovers.
Once again, Michael Leitch and Goromaru led by example. Leitch was involved in everything up front while Goromaru was a rock at the back.
“Our forwards were fantastic today,” said Jones. “They shut Samoa down, gave us set-piece dominance and their work rate around the ruck in attack and defense was first rate.”
Jones said that when he took the Japan job, following John Kirwan’s departure in 2011, one of the main things he wanted to do was to put some pride back into Japanese rugby.
“I wanted to show that Japan can produce a serious rugby team and has some serious rugby players,” he said.