OSAKA – Japan staged a late comeback but came just short against the World XV on Friday night, losing 31-28 in a thrilling curtain raiser at the refurbished Hanazono Rugby Stadium.
With the hooter having already sounded, the Brave Blossoms were camped inside the World XV 10-meter line on the hunt for a winning try. The match ended in heartbreaking fashion, however, when No. 8 Hendrik Tui knocked on, spilling the wet ball with the try line in sight.
In the first match at Hanazono since its redevelopment as a World Cup venue, Japan initially struggled to contain an impressive World XV backline featuring All Blacks legend Ma’a Nonu at inside center.
But after going down 31-7 early in the second half, the Brave Blossoms fought back with three straight tries to set up a thrilling finish in front of 16,846.
Japan coach Jamie Joseph praised his side for its fightback, but said it would need better discipline, as well as improved scrum and lineout execution, in its Nov. 3 test against New Zealand.
“I’m very proud of our team. We came up against a very big and powerful World XV team littered with internationals,” he said.
“There are some things we need to sort out very quickly. One of them is our discipline. We gave far too many penalties away. Against the likes of the teams we’re coming up against…it’s far too many.
“The other thing was our set piece. Generally with the set piece, it’s about spending more time together.”
World XV captain Andy Ellis said he was “very proud” of the performance by his side comprised largely of foreign players signed with Japan Top League teams.
The former All Black scrumhalf praised Japan’s speed and endurance, which he said had shown in the late fightback on a warm night that had turned wet and windy.
“It’s one of their strengths. They’ve realized what they’re good at and built a game plan around that. They’re very fit,” Ellis said.
Japan spent much of the opening 10 minutes attacking in the opposing half, but it was the fast and powerful World XV backline that conjured the first try of the match.
Flyhalf Lionel Cronje crossed under the posts after his team quickly attacked down the left following a stolen lineout on the opposite side.
Toni Pulu crossed in the corner five minutes later to give the Robbie Deans-coached World XV a 12-0 lead. The former Chiefs winger finished a rapid-fire attacking movement down the right after Cronje set him up with a pinpoint backhand cutout pass.
The winger was hurt crossing for the five-pointer, however, and was immediately replaced by the sole Japanese member of the World XV, Keisuke Moriya.
Kenki Fukuoka hit back for Japan in the 21st minute after the Brave Blossoms forced a scrum by tackling Nonu in goal and quickly spread the ball wide on the ensuing set piece.
Adrian Strauss appeared to cross for a try just inside 30 minutes after stealing a lineout on the Japan 10-meter line, but the former South Africa captain was ruled held up on video review.
After being penalized for collapsing the subsequent scrum, Japan desperately defended its try line for multiple phases but was unable to stop winger Tevita Li crossing in the left corner.
The World XV scored its fourth try just ahead of halftime when Jason Jenkins bulldozed his way across after Ellis was tackled just inches short of the line.
Li crossed for his second try less than a minute into the second half after the World XV backline quickly spread the ball wide and created an overlap from kickoff.
Timothy Lafaele struck back for Japan five minutes later, bringing the crowd to its feet by going the length of the field from an interception on his own 10-meter line.
Lomano Lava Lemeki cut the deficit to 31-19 with 20 minutes gone from the second half, scoring in the right corner after a period of sustained pressure on the World XV goal line.
Yu Tamura made it a 10-point game by sending his touchline conversion through the uprights.
Japan came inches from cutting the lead to single digits with a length-of-the-field attack in the 69th minute, but was foiled when Sunwolves standout Willie Britz made a try-saving tackle on Fumiaki Tanaka.
But the visitors could not keep out Ryoto Nakamura five minutes later, with the substitute back chasing down a kick from Rikiya Matsuda in goal and setting the stage for a thrilling finish.