GLOUCESTER, ENGLAND – Japan heads into the Rugby World Cup on a winning note thanks to a 13-10 victory over Georgia at Kingsholm Stadium on Saturday.
In their final warmup game before they kick off their World Cup campaign against South Africa on Sept. 19, the Brave Blossoms sealed the win with a try by Amanaki Lelei Mafi three minutes from time.
The big No. 8 had played just 40 minutes of rugby since seriously injuring a hip in December and came on earlier than expected when Ryu Koliniasi Holani went off early in the second half with concussion.
But he showed just why he is such an important member of the squad as he controlled the ball at the tail of the maul before powering over the line as Eddie Jones’ team avenged a 35-24 loss in Tbilisi last year.
“We were a bit slow to change tactically but for us it was the perfect hit out before the World Cup,” Jones said after the game.
Japan had started very well and a good rolling maul from the Japan pack in the opening minute could only be stopped illegally by the Georgian pack. Ayumu Goromaru banged over the resulting penalty to make it 3-0 with just two minutes on the clock.
But despite dominating possession and territory and putting multiple phases together, they couldn’t quite finish things off with the final pass not going to hand or their old nemesis, indiscipline at the breakdown, bringing an end to promising attacks.
A year ago, the Georgia scrum destroyed the Japan pack, but the Brave Blossoms had obviously learned and — penalties aside — they held their own in the tight and loose.
“The scrum was excellent and the front row did well,” Jones said.
So it was somewhat ironic that it was some clever play from the Georgia backs that saw wing Muraz Giorgadze go over in the 15th minute following a good kick by Merab Kvirikashvili, who then added the conversion to make it 7-3.
Goromaru narrowed the gap to a point, however, with a penalty in the 26th minute as Japan once again put together multiple phases.
Two yellow cards in the space of four minutes for dangerous tackles — to Georgia flanker Victor Kolelishvili and Japan hooker Shota Horie — saw both sides play with 14 men, and there was no further work for the scoreboard operator as the Georgians went into the break leading 7-6.
With Holani forced off the field, Japan had to rejig its line-up earlier than it would have liked, and it was to the team’s credit that it kept its defensive cohesion before finding a second wind halfway through the second stanza as it once again had the lion’s share of possession.
It looked like Japan’s inability to turn the screw, however, would cost it dearly when a long range penalty from Lasha Malaguradze in the 70th minute saw Georgia increase its lead against the run of play.
But Japan lived up to its nickname with Mafi going over following a well-executed driving maul from a line-out five meters out and Goromaru adding the extras.
The Brave Blossoms then held out, though they made life difficult for themselves by failing to make touch with what should have been the last kick of the game, allowing Georgia one last chance to salvage a win.
But the Japan defensive line — which often saw Michael Leitch lined up in the backs at set pieces — held firm, ensuring victory in the first of three games to be played in this rugby heartland in the coming weeks.
The Brave Blossoms return to Gloucester on Sept. 23 and Oct. 11 when they take on Scotland and the United States, respectively.
“It’s all about sharpness. It’s all about reacting to what sort of ball you get, how they defend, how the referee interprets things. They are all key factors,” Jones said of his side’s chances in a group that also includes Samoa.
“You go into a game with a plan but then you have to react to the circumstances of the game.”