Rugby

Brave Blossoms trounce Tonga, remain unbeaten in Pacific Nations Cup

Kyodo, AFP-JIJI

Japan claimed its second straight win in the Pacific Nations Cup on Saturday, beating Tonga 41-7 at Hanazono Rugby Stadium to set up a winner-takes-all clash against the United States.

Japan, playing the second of four matches in the run-up to the Rugby World Cup, followed up its 34-21 victory over Fiji by dominating the ‘Ikale Tahi, ranked 14th in the world, on an impressive effort from its pack.

The Brave Blossoms were led by assistant coach Tony Brown after head coach Jamie Joseph returned to New Zealand following the death of his mother. World No. 11 Japan has now won nine of its18 meetings against Tonga.

Tongan-born Amanaki Lelei Mafi and Asaeli Ai Valu scored first-half tries along with Timothy Lafaele, as Japan built a 21-0 halftime lead that it never gave up.

Japan and the United States are the only sides with two wins at the Pacific Nations Cup, meaning their clash next weekend in Fiji will decide the winner of the six-team tournament.

The U.S. Eagles, led by former Kobe Kobelco Steelers coach Gary Gold, defeated Samoa 13-10 at ANZ Stadium in Fiji earlier Saturday, a week after beating Canada 47-19.

The game at Hanazono was considered especially important because the ‘Ikale Tahi play a physical game similar to their Pacific island neighbors, 16th-ranked Samoa, which Japan will face in their third pool A match on Oct. 5.

With the temperature around 30 C at kickoff, the players and spectators also had to battle the heat at the venue, which will host four matches during the World Cup.

While Japan slowed down and committed more errors in the second half, Tonga picked up its pace on Leva Fifita’s 57th-minute try.

But Kotaro Matsushima made up for an early yellow card by touching down for Japan’s fourth try, before Kenki Fukuoka dotted down for the fifth, with Yu Tamura adding his fifth conversion to go with two penalties.

Brave Blossoms captain Michael Leitch, back after injury, said the team would scrutinize its performance but that it was on the right track after last week’s win against Fiji.

“There was so much pressure from them, it shows our performance is improving from last week,” he said.

“We’re doing well on the way to the World Cup.”

Hanazono is considered the spiritual home of Japanese rugby as it stages the annual national high school championship. Tonga will play two of its four pool matches at the venue.

Following next week’s game in Fiji, Japan will play South Africa on Sept. 6 before the World Cup opens on Sept. 20.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5