TOWNSVILLE, Australia — The New Zealand and Australian influence on the Japan rugby team seems to have had an added influence off the field as well as on.
There’s a poster in town promoting the World Cup that proclaims “Be rough, be tough, be rugby,” and the Japanese players seemed not only to have read it but also carried the message on board as the Cherry Blossoms kicked off their 2003 Rugby World Cup campaign with arguably the best performance the national team has ever put together.
At a pleasantly cool Dairy Farmers Stadium on Sunday, Scotland may have beaten Japan 32-11 but the Cherry Blossoms defied their critics and were within 10 minutes of putting in a giant-killing performance of epic proportions.
“The boys are absolutely devastated,” said Japan forward coach Mark Bell. “We could have won the game but lost it in those 10 minutes after we got to 15-11.”
Japan won the toss and elected to play with the strong wind that negated any possible advantage the Japanese may have hoped from the hot humid conditions that Townsville has been sweltering under for the last fortnight.
Within four minutes the Scots were ahead after Chris Paterson finished off a flowing phase of rugby from the Scots that saw them put 15 phases together.
It seemed as if the writing was on the wall for the Japanese but the Cherry Blossoms slowly got themselves into the game and Keiji Hirose put over a penalty in the 13th minute much to the delight of the locals in the crowd.
The diminutive flyhalf added a second penalty in the 23rd minute, and although the Japanese were having problems keeping the ball in contact situations and missing a few tackles — one of which resulted in Stuart Grimes scoring five minutes earlier — their commitment and courage could not be questioned.
As their defense held so the Japanese players gained in confidence and Ito made a scything break through the Scottish midfield in the 28th minute, which resulted in Adam Parker being tackled just short of the line, before both Hirotoki Onozawa and Daisuke Ohata were stopped meters short as Japan used its speed to find gaps in the Scottish defense.
Patterson knocked over a penalty, to a chorus of boos, to stretch Scotland’s lead to 15-6 in the 32nd minute, but roared on by the crowd, Japan started to believe the impossible was on and was unlucky to go into the break just nine points adrift.
The second half saw more spirited tackling from the Japanese, who to a man were playing some of the best rugby of their lives, highlighted by a through-the-legs pass from debutant Takashi Tsuji on his own line that allowed Onozawa the chance to make a weaving 40-meter run out of defense.
As expected, Yuji Sonoda and Andy Miller were brought into the action in the 50th minute, and within four minutes Miller and Yukio Motoki combined on a move created on the Kobe Steel training ground to put Onozawa over for a superb try that sent the crowd into raptures as Japan closed to 15-11.
With a bonus point at least in the offering for losing by under seven points it was essential Japan kept its discipline but a poor throw from Masaaki Sakata resulted in a scrum and Taylor made a telling break from the base to put Paterson over for his second try in the 65th minute. The No. 8 capped off a good performance with a try in the 78th minute, which earned the Scots a bonus point for their fourth try.
A late try from Simon Danielli, converted by Gregor Townsend, was probably more than the Scots deserved as the Japanese players finally ran out of steam, having amassed an amazing 131 tackles in the game.
The Scots fans may have been doing the conga — highland style behind a piper — as referee Stuart Dickinson blew the final whistle but for the majority of the crowd, the real heroes were the players in the red and white of Japan.
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