TOYOTA, AICHI PREFECTURE - Japan stunned Georgia with a mature performance based on physicality in difficult conditions Saturday as it ran out a 28-0 winner at Toyota Stadium.
In front of a small but vocal crowd of 14,776 at one of the 12 Rugby World Cup 2019 venues, and with Nigel Owens showing why he is the world’s top referee, the Brave Blossoms put aside a poor first half to finish their June test series with two wins and a loss.
“I am really proud of the team and what we have achieved in June,” said coach Jamie Joseph. “In the past year we have come a long way in a short time.”
With the forwards dominating in the loose and more than holding their own in the tight on a slippery surface, Wimpie van der Walt, Lomano Lava Lemeki and Kazuki Himeno scored second-half tries to seal the win, the Brave Blossoms’ fifth in six games with the “Lelos.”
“It was a very difficult match in conditions that Japan traditionally does not enjoy,” said Joseph. “But the players understood and overcame the challenge.
“In the set piece we put them under pressure and they couldn’t get going. And when the ball was on the ground, our counter-rucking and attacking mind set in defense was a standout point.”
Japan captain Michael Leitch said Friday his team needed to start well and it did just that. A strong run by Amanaki Lelei Mafi in the second minute allowed Yu Tamura to knock over a penalty after the Georgians were caught offside.
With the roof broken at the stadium, the rain that fell all day and unseasonably cool temperature should have suited the Georgians and their big forwards better.
But they were unable to breach the Japan defense, not helped in part by having Vito Kolelishvili sent to the sin bin in the 20th minute.
Two more penalties, by Tamura and Ryuji Noguchi, eventually saw Japan take a 9-0 lead into the break, but it could and should have been more as Tamura missed three kicks at goal, two of which were well within his range and in front of the posts.
“We gave away far too many penalties in the first half,” rued Georgia coach Milton Haig.
Japan came out early for the second half and went through some handling drills on the field as the players waited for the Georgians to reappear.
And it paid off.
Replacement lock Van der Walt powered over in the 49th minute following a good Japan scrum that had forced the Georgians to turn the ball over.
Lemeki followed him onto the scoresheet four minutes later after another good turnover, the wing reminding everyone why he was one of the standout players on the sevens circuit prior to the Rio Olympics as he beat five defenders on his way to the line.
Tamura added the extras to both, the second from the touchline, to make it 23-0 before Himeno crossed for Japan’s third try.
The replacement No. 8’s effort came from the Japan kicking game that had caused all sorts of problems for the Georgian defense, the local favorite — he captains Toyota Verblitz — diving on a loose ball after Akihito Yamada had forced it free from the defender.
“I’m glad I was able to contribute to the result in front of my home fans,” Himeno said. “We didn’t have a lot of chances to score a try, so I went into the game thinking I wanted to do it.”
The Japan defense then held out the rest of the way to show that on the day there is a big difference between the sides ranked 11th and 12th in the world.
“At the breakdown, Japan were a lot quicker and more aggressive,” said Haig, adding that the benefit of having most of the team play Super Rugby for the Sunwolves was really starting to have a benefit.
Joseph praised his side “for putting their bodies on the line” and agreed with Haig, saying “one of the big reasons Japan have been able to transition the learnings from Super Rugby to test-match level is the consistency of the players.”
That consistency will be tested next in November, when Japan’s opponents will include New Zealand and England.