KAMAISHI, IWATE PREFECTURE – The tone for Japan’s win over Fiji on Saturday was set as early as the third minute when match captain Pieter “Lappies” Labuschagne overruled the wishes of Yu Tamura and told his flyhalf to take the points on offer rather than kick for the corner.
The South African-born flanker’s conservative approach paid instant dividends at Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium as the Brave Blossoms took an early lead that they never relinquished.
“Japan started very well and were very clinical in their execution,” said Fiji coach John McKee.
With the early lead and nerves settled, the Brave Blossoms then stuck to their game plan — holding onto the ball rather than kicking it — and they were rewarded with four first-half tries.
“They had our defense under pressure and that resulted in points for them. We tried to find a solution, but it was difficult for us,” said McKee.
Labuschagne impressed both as a leader and player until he was forced off in the 33rd minute with a knee injury. But such is the depth of this Japan team that his replacement was long-term captain Michael Leitch.
“There were a few nervous times when Lappies went off,” said head coach Jamie Joseph. “But then our campaign captain came on and that shows how we have grown as a team with leaders across the board, which was what we need heading into the World Cup.”
That leadership group also includes Tamura and Kazuki Himeno, who celebrated his 25th birthday in style with an outstanding performance on the flank, topped off with a try.
The senior players were instrumental in following the game plan handed to them by Joseph and attack coach Tony Brown.
Following the November 2018 tests, Joseph talked about how Japan was now capable of playing different styles of rugby according to the opposition, as it proved on Saturday.
Rather than kicking for field position, the Brave Blossoms strung multiple phases together with forwards and backs showing impressive skill and strength to offload despite some big hits from the Fijian defenders.
“We didn’t want to kick unless it went out,” said Joseph.
Timothy Lafaele’s try in the 23rd minute — Japan’s third — was a classic team effort with Amanaki Lelei Mafi, Shota Horie and Kotaro Matsushima all showing good strength and soft hands to put their outside center over the chalk.
“At crucial times our execution and skills were spot on,” said Joseph.
A major factor for that was Japan’s level of fitness, best exemplified by lock Luke Thompson, who played the full 80 minutes in sweltering heat and humidity, despite at 38 years and 102 days becoming the oldest player to ever represent Japan.
“The players were able to hold onto the ball for the majority of the game. They did not run out of petrol,” said the head coach.
Japan also shone defensively, with the Fijians often being stripped of the ball or losing it in contact as Japan gang tackled with one player stopping the ball carrier and the other attacking the pill.
However, Joseph was not getting too carried away, pointing out that Japan’s World Cup opponents will have noted the two rather simple tries Fiji scored from rolling mauls.
The Japan scrum also creaked on a couple of crucial occasions, handing Fiji penalties that either allowed it to clear its line or set up an attacking platform in the Japan 22.
“We’re not getting ahead of ourselves,” Joseph said.
Much was made at the post-match press conference about the performance of individuals such as scrumhalf Kaito Shigeno and wing Matsushima.
But Joseph was having none on it, emphasizing the Brave Blossoms’ motto: “One Team.”
“The players selected did their job,” the former All Black and Japan international said. “I have the utmost confidence the players selected next week (for the game against Tonga) will do theirs.”
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