NAPIER, New Zealand — John Kirwan’s squad gave an unexpected first-half scare to the New Zealand Maori at McLean Park on Saturday, as the two teams finished off their Pacific Nations Cup encounter with a final 65-22 victory for the home team.
While the Brave Blossoms ran out of stamina by the end of the first half, they dominated the attacking game in the first 40 minutes, leaving the field at halftime with a 22-17 lead.
Japan flyhalf James Arlidge excelled with his kicking game, placing a penalty kick in the sixth minute. The Maori quickly answered with two consecutive tries from flyhalf Callum Bruce, the second of which he successfully converted.
In the 24th minute, a focused counterattack by Japan saw fullback Bryce Robins score a try. That was quickly followed by another one from wing Christian Loamanu, which Arlidge converted successfully, putting the lead back to the Japanese side.
Japan’s determined defense was answered by a try from Maori center Tamati Ellison, swinging the lead back to the Maori five minutes before halftime.
Bruce missed the conversion, and while Arlidge also failed with a penalty kick, the Blossoms gained significant territory, which helped Japan’s flanker Luke Thompson to touch down behind the score line in the 40th minute, and Arridge made it to give his team a halftime advantage.
While the team showed excellent form in the first half in an exciting game, one in which the lead changed hands five times in rapid succession, the Blossoms didn’t execute physically or mentally in the second half.
“In the first half, our team showed their best effort, and I am very proud of that,” said Japan tighthead prop Tomokazu Soma, who skippered the team in place of veteran captain Takuro Miuchi.
“However, we couldn’t maintain that in the second half. I am very disappointed with that and with the outcome.”
The Maori side scored seven tries in succession in the second half, including a hat trick from replacement winger Hosea Gear, one from replacement fullback Dwayne Sweeney and another from wing Zar Lawrence.
To finish off the fatigued Japanese squad, center Jason Kawau placed a try in the final minute of the game, that Sweeney failed to convert, making the score 65-22. This earned the New Zealand Maori bonus points and saw the team finish its first four rounds in the Pacific Nations Cup unbeaten.
Up next: The Maori will face Australia A on July 6 in Sydney in a game that will likely determine the outcome of the tournament.
Japan (1-3) faces Samoa in Apia on July 5 in its final-round match. The Blossoms picked up their lone tourney win on June 15, a 35-13 triumph over Tonga at Sendai’s Yurtec Stadium.
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