Japan scored five tries against the world champion All Blacks but still suffered a 69-31 defeat on Saturday.
Japan went into the match at Tokyo’s Ajinomoto Stadium — the venue for the opening game of the 2019 Rugby World Cup — having never beaten New Zealand but knowing that the visitors had selected a second-string squad featuring eight debutants.
The Brave Blossoms gave as good as they got in an entertaining first half and scored three times through Samuela Anise, Hendrick Tui and Timothy Lafaele.
Jamie Henry and Lafaele also breached the All Blacks’ defense after the interval, but New Zealand’s greater class showed and a flurry of second-half tries ultimately gave the world champions a commanding victory in front of a crowd of 43,751.
“I’m obviously disappointed with the loss but I’m not disappointed with the intent of my team,” said Japan head coach Jamie Joseph. “Just the fact that we scored five tries against the All Blacks is a sign that we are improving, especially against the best team in the world.
“We wanted to take the game to the All Blacks. We knew we were playing the best team in the world and we really didn’t want to sit back and take it. So I’m really proud of the guys, but clearly when you make a mistake against a team like the All Blacks, they make you pay for it.”
New Zealand retained only one player from the squad that beat Australia 37-20 in Yokohama the previous week, having already sent 22 players to Europe to prepare for upcoming games against England, Ireland and Italy.
“There was a fair amount of risk going into this game, but we felt that the rewards were going to be bigger than the risk if we got things right,” said New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen. “There are a number of people here tonight who have done themselves proud.”
Japan will also now head overseas to face England and Russia, and captain Michael Leitch is hoping his team can use Saturday’s experience to beat Eddie Jones’ England at Twickenham.
“We trained really hard for this game, but it was even more difficult than we expected and we realized that we have to train even harder,” said Leitch. “This game has shown us a lot of things, and now we need to think about what we need to do to compete with the world’s best teams.
“The mentality of our team has improved. We played really well at the beginning but then conceded some soft tries. Next we play England at Twickenham and we need to work really hard if we want to beat them. Hopefully we can come back with a win.”
A penalty right in front of the posts gave New Zealand the chance to get on the scoreboard as early as the third minute, and Richie Mo’unga duly took it.
But Japan hit back in sensational style when Anise charged down Jordie Barrett’s attempted clearance kick a minute later, and the second-row forward was quick enough to chase the ball down before it ran out of play.
Japan continued to put the world champions under pressure, but New Zealand went back in front when Dane Coles — making his first All Blacks appearance for a year — found space to score in the corner in the 15th minute.
Mo’unga also got through Japan’s defense five minutes later, and the home side was left with a mountain to climb when Ngani Laumape scored the All Blacks’ third try in the 28th minute.
Tui helped matters when he battered his way over the line to score five minutes later, only for New Zealand to retake control with tries from Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi and Laumape.
Lafaele touched down on the stroke of halftime to send the Brave Blossoms into the break trailing 38-19, and the tries kept coming after the break as New Zealand substitute George Bridge and Henry both crossed the line.
Waisake Naholo, Matt Proctor, Laumape, and Bridge then added more tries as the All Blacks began to run up the score, but another try by Lafaele gave the crowd something to cheer before the final whistle.
“I think Japan are getting better and better all the time,” said Hansen. “Anybody that came to the game today would have enjoyed what they saw from Japan. They’re building and they’re trying to play a game of rugby that suits them. And if you get it wrong against them, they’ll hurt you.
“I’m not sure how many times they’ve played the All Blacks, but they haven’t scored that many tries against the All Blacks in the past. And they scored some good tries. They had other opportunities to score too, and they just didn’t finish them off.”