TOULOUSE, FRANCE - Japan delivered its best performance under coach Jamie Joseph on Saturday.
Going up against a side that qualified for the 2019 Rugby World Cup as the second-ranked team from Oceania behind Fiji, the Brave Blossoms blew away the Pacific islanders. Japan displayed some scintillating 15-man rugby and a well-organized, robust defense in a 39-6 victory at Stade Ernest Wallon.
Japan came into the game as the more experienced side with its starting XV having won 392 caps to Tonga’s 157. It was more of the same among the reserves, with Japan’s replacements having played 58 tests to just six by Tongan backups.
It was experienced campaigners such as captain Michael Leitch, Keita Inagaki and Yu Tamura alongside newcomers such as Wimpie van der Walt, Kazuki Himeno and man-of-the-match Lomano Lava Lemeki who were at the heart of the Japanese effort.
“That was a really physical game, a step up from the game against Australia,” said Lemeki, who scored two of Japan’s five tries.
The influence of new defense coach John Plumtree was also very evident as Japan stopped wave after wave of attacks from its bigger opponents.
“We have been working a lot with John and implementing his system,” Leitch said. “And it is finally starting to come right.”
Japan got off to a perfect start with Lemeki going over in just the third minute after the forwards had laid the platform with a good driving maul.
Sonatane Takulua closed the gap with a penalty five minutes later but that only saw Japan raise its game, aided by some missed tackles from the Tongans.
Tamura added a penalty to his earlier conversion as Japan restored a seven-point advantage.
But with Japan’s line-out struggling and its discipline at the breakdown upsetting referee Andrew Brace, Tonga once again closed the gap through the boot of Takulua.
However, it was indiscipline from Tonga that proved to be the turning point.
With lock Halaleva Fifita sent to the sin bin in the 28th minute, Japan scored two tries in quick succession through Amanaki Lelei Mafi and Leitch.
And with Tamura converting both tries and adding a second penalty the Brave Blossoms led 27-6 at the break.
The second half was a more even affair as both coaches took the opportunity to bring in players off the bench.
Replacement scrumhalf Yutaka Nagare prevented a certain Tonga five-pointer with a good tackle before Lemeki added his second try in the 60th minute following some more good work from the pack and a clever inside pass from Tamura.
Kenki Fukuoka closed the scoring with a try in the 74th minute as he used his pace to beat the Tongan cover defense as Japan recorded its largest margin of victory over Tonga.
“Poor execution in attack and defense” was the reason given by Tonga captain Takulua for the loss.
“We couldn’t get our set piece going and slipped off too many tackles,” he said.
Japan takes on France next week in a battle between the nations hosting the next two Rugby World Cups.
As Leitch pointed out, the Brave Blossoms will need to recover quickly from their defensive heroics.
“The body is sore,” he said. “All 23 Japan players will be feeling it today.”