KOBE – Japan fell just short of a second straight win over Italy despite a furious second-half fightback on Saturday in a 25-22 defeat to the Azzurri in the first rugby test match ever to be played in Kobe.
Italy began the match looking for revenge after losing 34-17 to the Brave Blossoms the previous weekend in Oita, and two first-half tries and another score early in the second put the visitors firmly in control.
But quickfire tries from William Tupou and halftime substitute Amanaki Lelei Mafi brought Japan right back into contention in front of 20,276 fans under a closed roof at Noevir Stadium, only for Italy to carve out some breathing space with two late penalties by Italian flyhalf Tommaso Allan.
Kotaro Matsushima then set up a barnstorming finish when he scored a try in the final minute to reduce the deficit to three points, but Japan could not come up with another score and the Italians escaped with the win.
“It’s a disappointing result for us as a team,” said Japan head coach Jamie Joseph. “However, we are going to learn a lot from this test match because it was a tough match.
“I guess the positives for us are that despite the fact that we were down 19 points, the team showed incredible character to fight back, to not throw the towel in. I thought at 19-17 or around that point we had enough fitness and resolve to take the test match. But unfortunately again a mistake allowed them to get back on top.”
Japan looked dead and buried when Italy scored its third try early in the second half and then touched down again through Matteo Minozzi five minutes later. The latter effort was ruled out for offside, however, and the tide suddenly turned in Japan’s favor.
“You saw there was a change in the momentum of the game in terms of our discipline, and also the try that was disallowed that would have made it 26-3,” said Italy head coach Conor O’Shea.
“When you haven’t won many games and you’re reacting to a week like we had last week, I think mentally it’s a huge challenge. To be clawed back but then have the capacity to change that momentum again is a huge tribute to the team.”
Japan had to weather an early storm when lock Samuela Anise was sin-binned for dangerous play in the fourth minute, and it took a sharp intervention from scrum half Fumiaki Tanaka to stop Italy winger Tommaso Benvenuti from scoring minutes later.
There was nothing Japan could do to prevent Benvenuti from crossing the line in the 19th minute, however, as he outran Matsushima to touch down in the corner and Allan added the conversion to make it 7-0.
“The discipline today was out of character,” said Joseph. “Yellow cards aren’t something that we do regularly but they cost us dearly.”
Italy extended its lead in the 26th minute when the TMO ruled that hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini had touched the ball over the line amid a cluster of bodies. This time, Allan kicked his conversion against the post.
Yu Tamura kicked a 34th-minute penalty to send Japan into halftime trailing 12-3, but the Italians moved further ahead four minutes into the second half when flanker Jake Polledri broke through some weak tackling to score between the posts.
But Japan clicked into gear after Minozzi’s try was denied for offside, and Tupou seized the lifeline when he touched down in the 60th minute. Mafi then brought Japan even closer when he finished off a swift passing move in the corner, and substitute Rikiya Matsuda added the extras to make it 19-17.
“It was a team try,” said Mafi, who also scored in the previous week’s game. “All I did was finish it off.”
Allan took the wind out of Japan’s sails with two penalties in the space of three minutes, but Matsushima kept the Brave Blossoms’ hopes alive when he crossed the line in the 80th minute. Matsuda hit the post with the conversion to leave Japan needing another score, however, and the home side could not hit back again.
“The focus this week was on the mental side of the game,” said Japan captain Michael Leitch. “When things aren’t going right for us, how can we react, how can we put things right? That was something we learned and we have all raised our level as a team.
“We came close in the second half and we are confident in our fitness. We just need to concentrate on how we can put games away and actually win them. We’ll go again in the next game against Georgia.”
Japan plays Georgia on June 23 in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, in the last of its three June matches.