GLOUCESTER, ENGLAND – Japan put aside the disappointment of not making the quarterfinals of the Rugby World Cup by wrapping up the pool stage of the tournament with a 28-18 win over the United States at Kingsholm on Sunday evening.
The victory sees the Brave Blossoms finish their Pool B campaign with three wins, making them the first team in the history of the tournament not to make the last eight with such a record.
Coach Eddie Jones said he wanted to Japan to be remembered as the team of the tournament and it will take some performance from the sides left in the competition to take that title away from them, as the Brave Blossoms leave England having beaten South Africa, Samoa and the U.S. Eagles.
Played in front of the Japan Self-Defense Forces team — currently in England for a world inter-services competition — and a huge number of Japanese fans, the Brave Blossoms started nervously.
The Americans dominated the early proceedings and a penalty from AJ MacGinty put them ahead in the fourth minute.
But Japan hit back immediately. A good break and clever kick from Kosei Ono and an excellent chase by Yoshikazu Fujita set up the field position from which the Brave Blossoms went wide and Kotaro Matsushima crossed for the opening try.
Ayumu Goromaru added the extras as Japan went 7-3 up with eight minutes on the clock.
The atmosphere in the crowd was electric and the noise reached rock concert proportions midway through the half with two tries in the space of four minutes.
Takudzwa Ngwenya finished off a period of sustained pressure for the Eagles by going over in the corner in front of Kingsholm’s famous Shed stand, before Fujita was pushed over by the Japan pack as the Brave Blossoms responded with a “no-whistle try” from the restart.
Goromaru once again added the extras as then banged over a penalty in the 32nd minute as Japan went into the break leading 17-8, helped by some superb defense on their line just before the whistle blew for the end of the half.
Goromaru extended the lead three minutes into the second stanza with a 42-meter penalty as Japan started the half better than the first.
But the Eagles were playing for pride, having come into the game with three losses to their name. And they showed plenty of it as they tried to get back into the game, MacGinty closing the gap with a second penalty in the 54th minute.
Japan had their own pride though and never was that more evident than when replacement No. 8 Amanaki Lelei Mafi chased down speedster Ngwenya to stop a certain try just three minutes later.
The game was end-to-end stuff — a fitting conclusion to the 39 that had gone before it — and Japan were the next on the scoreboard.
In shades of the first game against the Springboks, the Brave Blossoms turned down a simple three points, went for the corner and were once again rewarded when Mafi powered over to make it 25-11.
The Gloucester faithful — perhaps the most passionate fans in England — were loving it and cheers of “Japan” and “Nippon” resonated around the ground.
But they were soon silenced as Chris Wyles crossed for the Eagles with MacGinty’s conversion making it a seven-point game at 25-18 with seven minutes remaining.
Japan needed a score to make the game safe and it came via the reliable boot of Goromaru after the Eagles were penalized at the breakdown.
Japan may not have gained a bonus point for four tries but they left the field to a standing ovation as they ended the tournament as they started it — with a win.