For such a religious nation it was perhaps appropriate that it needed a biblical figure to steal the show and help Italy defeat Japan 32-19 on Sunday on a scorching hot day at Toyko’s Chichibunomiya Stadium.
Three tries from the dread-locked Martin Castrogiovanni (how many props can claim a test match hat trick?) eventually proved the difference as the Italians restored some lost pride following their defeat to Romania last week.
“He’s like Samson. We are not going to cut his hair,” said Italy coach John Kirwan after the game. “He’s had a couple of weeks off and had a little bit of extra gas, and showed why he can be one of the best players in his position in the world.”
With Japan unbeaten under new coach Mitsutake Hagimoto and winner of the Toshiba Super Powers Cup, there were high expectations, despite the experience of the opposition, which had beaten Scotland in this year’s Six Nations.
It may have been scrappy at times but this was a real test match with both sides putting their opposite numbers under pressure and forcing mistakes.
Despite Japan starting the better of the two teams, it was Italy that got on the scoreboard first through a penalty by flyhalf Rima Wakarua.
Tries by Castrogiovanni and Gonzalo Canale, the latter a solo effort as he followed up his own kick and chase from his own 10-meter line, saw Italy stretch out to a 15-0 lead, but Kyohei Morita and Wataru Ikeda added a drop goal and penalty, respectively, as Japan pulled back to 15-6 at the halftime break.
With Ikeda and Wakarua trading penalties early in the second half, the turning point in the game came in the 50th minute when Daisuke Ohata used his blinding speed to regather a kick from Hirotoki Onozawa only to knock on as he tried to apply downward pressure in the in-goal area.
“It was a critical point in the game as Japan seemed to be coping better with the weather,” said Kirwan. “The game could have been different if he had scored.”
As it was, Onozawa did score in the 75th minute to set up a grandstand finish, but Castrogiovanni’s third try in the 81st minute silenced the crowd, described by lock Adam Parker as the liveliest he had seen in Japan.
“The game showed the difference in the IRB world rankings,” said Japan coach Mitsutake Hagimoto, referring to the fact that Italy is ranked 11th to Japan’s 18th.
“The players just weren’t able to put into practice what we had been doing in training.”
Parker perhaps summed up the disappointment in the Japan locker room when he said: “We had a realistic goal of winning. It’s frustrating.”
It perhaps says something of the advances made in Japanese rugby in the last year that a loss to a team that regularly plays the best in the world should be greeted with such disappointment.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.