FUKUOKA – Japan put an end to a four-game losing skid, trouncing Uruguay 30-8 at Level 5 Stadium on Saturday.
With just three games and four weeks to go before the Brave Blossoms play South Africa in their Rugby World Cup opener, head coach Eddie Jones said he wanted a much improved performance, and to a certain extent he got it.
“It was a tricky game,” he said. “They defended well and the ball was slippery. But our set play was good, our line-out was excellent and our scrum got better as the game went on. We weren’t that sharp in attack and were hanging back a bit but we have regained some confidence.”
The breakdown, an area Japan struggled in during the Pacific Nations Cup, looked better as was its one-on-one defense, as exemplified by Fumiaki Tanaka in the dying minutes.
“They were pretty hard over the ball,” Jones said of the breakdown. “It’s difficult to play teams that set out to stop you playing and you have to give Uruguay credit for that. But we are getting our technique right.”
On a warm evening in the southwestern port city, Japan was forced to make a late change with Kosei Ono pulling out due to poor health and Harumichi Tatekawa replacing him at flyhalf.
But it didn’t seem to affect the team too much as the Brave Blossoms made their intentions known with an 80-meter attack straight from the kickoff. And they continued to play at pace — though unfortunately the ball wasn’t always kept in hand.
“I don’t want to make excuses for the players but it was like playing in heavy rain out there, it was so hot,” Jones said. “When the ball is like that it’s better off having the opposition have it because it’s so hard holding onto it.”
One other area of concern was Japan’s old nemesis, the restart, and two botched kickoff returns allowed Uruguay to stay in the game for the first 40 minutes.
Hendrik Tui went over for the opening try in the 10th minute following a good pick-and-go by Hayden Hopgood, but the Brave Blossoms’ failure to get out of their 22 from the restart allowed Felipe Berchesi to close the gap with a penalty.
Playing in front of a good vocal crowd — Fukuoka is the cradle of Japanese schools’ rugby and there were a lot of children in the crowd of 10,238 — Japan responded well, and a penalty from Ayumu Goromaru saw Japan lead 10-3 as it went into a water break after 20 minutes.
Shota Horie extended the lead when he came in at a superb angle close to line to go over for Japan’s second try in the 32nd minute that Goromaru again converted.
But once again the restart was not cleared and Japan paid the penalty with Jeronimo Etcheverry going over in the corner as Uruguay made it 17-8 at the break.
Two penalties from Goromaru saw Japan increase its lead early in the second half, but errors, often unforced, meant it was unable to turn all its possession and territory into tries, ensuring the coaches’ box once again took the occasional battering.
Japan managed one more score with Tui going over for his second try following a superb driving maul with Goromaru again on target.
And it needed the smallest player on the field, 166-cm, 77-kg Tanaka, to ensure it remained 30-8, the Japan scrumhalf pulling off a superb covering double tackle when it looked like Uruguay would grab a consolation try at the death.
“Japan were more dynamic and quicker than us,” Uruguay coach Pablo Lemoine said.
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