YOKOHAMA – Two-time Rugby World Cup winner Australia handed 2019 host Japan a harsh lesson two years ahead of the tournament with a 63-30 win in Yokohama on Saturday.
Australia, which beat the world champion All Blacks in Brisbane on Oct. 21, ran in five first-half tries at Nissan Stadium — the venue for the 2019 final — with Japan managing only a penalty kick in reply.
The Brave Blossoms’ fortunes improved early in the second half when substitute Wimpie Van Der Walt crashed over for a try, but Australia touched down four more times before Amanaki Lelei Mafi and Kazuki Himeno scored late consolation tries for the home side.
“I felt the game was a game of two halves,” said Japan head coach Jamie Joseph. “In the first half our discipline was poor, we gave penalties away, we couldn’t really get our game going and we paid the price. That was a real disappointing start to the game for us. In the second half we showed what we can do when we can create some pressure on the opposition and play our type of rugby.
“The big area where we struggled was defending the big players,” he continued. “The Australia players are clearly bigger than us. That’s obviously our biggest challenge going forward when we play tier-one teams.”
A Japan test match-record crowd of 43,621 turned up to the Yokohama venue, which will host both semifinals and the final in 2019 as well as four first-round matches, but the Brave Blossoms’ chances of beating the Wallabies for the first time in five attempts looked slim from the opening kickoff.
“We’re still growing,” said Japan captain Michael Leitch. “Playing against a top-four team like Australia shows us the level that we are currently at. It’s just like I said when we played Ireland — it’s all good experience for us.
“We practiced defense a lot over the past three weeks, and although we have gotten better we are still not good enough to reach the World Cup quarterfinals yet. Our discipline isn’t there yet. We’re disappointed but I want us to use this as a base going forward.”
Japan handed the visitors the initiative when an illegal Shota Horie tackle gave Australia the ball and Samu Kerevi ran in the first try of the afternoon in the sixth minute.
Henry Speight added another five minutes later, crashing through the Japanese defense after Australia had won the ball at a lineout.
“Their first two tries came as a result of penalties, and that hurt us,” said Japan flanker Shunsuke Nunomaki. “We were trying to keep our discipline but that’s what happens when you’re under pressure. We have to get better at dealing with the pressure.”
The Brave Blossoms tried to build some momentum but the size of their task was brutally underlined when hulking winger Marika Koroibete halted fullback Kotaro Matsushima with a crunching tackle.
Rikiya Matsuda kicked a penalty to get Japan onto the scoreboard, but Australia replied with a try from Tatafu Polota-Nau and two from Tevita Kuridrani to head into halftime with a commanding 35-3 lead.
“We made a lot of needless mistakes,” said Japan scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka. “Just small things and miscommunications that we need to watch again on video and fix.”
Japan made the perfect start to the second half when video replays confirmed that Van Der Walt had touched down for a try amid a pile of bodies.
“We cleared our heads and focused again on what we had to do, and managed to score a try,” said Matsuda. “We started the second half well and cut out the mistakes.”
Matsuda then kicked the conversion before adding another penalty, but Kerevi and Kuridrani scored further tries to take the wind out of Japan’s sails.
A bad Matsuda mistake handed Australia another try through Nick Phipps before Rob Simmons added another, but Mafi and Himeno gave Japan something to cheer before the final whistle when they scrambled over for late tries.
“It was a fantastic atmosphere from the crowd,” said Australia head coach Michael Cheika. “You look from the stands and it was a great atmosphere, a very respectful crowd and a great place to play rugby.
“We’ve had a big week. We played a match against the Barbarians on Saturday and then traveled on Tuesday night to come to Japan. Between the last game and this game we lost five or six players from our starting team. But I thought our mindset and attitude were very good from the start. I think we dropped off a bit toward the end but I also think Japan played very well.”