Rugby

Japan overcomes slow start, triumphs over Russia in Rugby World Cup opener

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Host nation Japan recovered from an early scare to beat rank outsider Russia 30-10 in the opening game of the 2019 Rugby World Cup on Friday night, sending a raucous crowd at Tokyo Stadium home happy.

Russia, which did not even qualify for the tournament and claimed a place only because Romania and Spain were penalized for fielding ineligible players, stunned the Brave Blossoms by scoring the first try of the match in the fifth minute when Kirill Golosnitskiy pounced on a mistake by William Tupou.

But Kotaro Matsushima scored two tries to give Japan a slender lead going into halftime, before a further score from Pieter Labuschagne shortly after the break put the home side in control and Matsushima completed his hat trick to secure a bonus point.

The Brave Blossoms' Kotaro Matsushima scores one of his three tries on Friday against Russia. | DAN ORLOWITZ
The Brave Blossoms’ Kotaro Matsushima scores one of his three tries on Friday against Russia. | DAN ORLOWITZ

Japan head coach Jamie Joseph will now turn his attentions toward the Brave Blossoms’ next Pool A game against current world No. 1-ranked Ireland in Shizuoka on Sept. 28, but first he allowed himself a moment of reflection after an emotional evening for the host nation.

“Obviously we were put under a lot of pressure from a very good Russian defense,” he said. “I think, as we all know, we’ve been preparing for four years for the World Cup opening game, and it was obvious that the pressure got to some of our players. I’m pretty proud of the way we battled through that.”

A crowd of 45,745 turned Tokyo Stadium into a festival of celebration for the opening game of Asia’s first-ever Rugby World Cup, and Japan captain Michael Leitch was happy that his team could play its part by delivering the victory.

Spectators do the wave during Friday's Pool A game at Tokyo Stadium. | AP
Spectators do the wave during Friday’s Pool A game at Tokyo Stadium. | AP

“It was awesome playing in front of a packed stadium,” said Leitch. “Being at home and having the home fans cheering on the team really helped when the pressure was on. When we have a bit of momentum and the fans get behind the team, that really excites us.”

Japan made a disastrous start, with Russia making a scorching run deep into the home side’s territory straight from kickoff, and scrumhalf Vasily Dorofeev almost scoring two minutes later after charging down an attempted clearance from Yu Tamura.

But worse was to come when Tupou completely missed a Russian high kick toward the Japan goal line, and Golosnitskiy snapped up the ball to run home for the tournament’s opening try in the fifth minute. Yury Kushnarev slotted the conversion to give Russia a seven-point lead.

“The players had very good preparation this week,” said Joseph. “We were very confident going into the game, and in training we were very accurate. But you can’t really train for a game like that. A game that players have been waiting for such a long time for. We made the first mistake from the kickoff and then all of a sudden, we’re under pressure. Those are the sorts of things that are going to come at the World Cup.”

Japan captain Michael Leitch fails to catch the ball during a lineout. | REUTERS
Japan captain Michael Leitch fails to catch the ball during a lineout. | REUTERS

Japan regrouped and began to take the game to the Russians, and the pressure paid off when Matsushima scored in the 12th minute. A cute offload from Japan center Timothy Lafaele allowed Tupou to release Matsushima, and the winger raced into space to beat the Russian defenders to the line.

Tamura’s poor conversion attempt left Japan trailing by two, and the Brave Blossoms were denied the lead when referee Nigel Owens ruled out what Matsushima thought was another try in the 35th minute following a video review.

There was no debate when the winger crossed the line four minutes later, however, and this time Tamura added the conversion to send Japan into halftime 12-7 ahead.

Japan flyhalf Yu Tamura kicks a penalty during Friday's match against Russia. | AFP-JIJI
Japan flyhalf Yu Tamura kicks a penalty during Friday’s match against Russia. | AFP-JIJI

Tamura kicked a penalty shortly after the break before Labuschagne put Japan further in command with a try in the 47th minute. The flanker stripped the ball clean away from a Russian player, darted into space, then kept going all the way over the line.

A Kushnarev penalty made sure Russia stayed in with a chance entering the final 20 minutes, but Tamura kicked one of his own before Matsushima grabbed his third try of the evening with the tiring Russians no match for his searing pace.

“He’s in great form,” Joseph said of Matsushima. “Like everybody, he’s been waiting for this opportunity to play in a home World Cup, and when the rest of the players play to their potential — like Matsu is — I think we’ll really improve.”

Japan's Rikiya Matsuda (right) and Russia's German Davydov battle for the ball on Friday. | REUTERS
Japan’s Rikiya Matsuda (right) and Russia’s German Davydov battle for the ball on Friday. | REUTERS

Russia head coach Lyn Jones must now pick his players up before they face Samoa on Sept. 24 in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture, but the Welshman was proud of their efforts.

“I think Japan were very good in defense and they hit us back, but we just couldn’t get to the gain line,” said Jones. “We couldn’t get momentum into the game. We were constantly suffering from a lack of gain line. When we eventually did cross the gain line, we got excited and there was a bit of magic with us. But it wasn’t for long enough.

“The first game of the tournament for any team is always uncomfortable. There was a lot of pressure on the Japanese players tonight and they’ve come through the test with a victory. They’ve grown and become a better side.”

Brave Blossoms players salute the crowd after beating Russia on Friday. | KYODO
Brave Blossoms players salute the crowd after beating Russia on Friday. | KYODO