FUKUROI, SHIZUOKA PREF. – Japan pulled off another Rugby World Cup shock for the ages with a fearless 19-12 win over Ireland on Saturday.
Japan conceded two first-half tries to the world No. 2-ranked Irish at Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa, but standoff Yu Tamura kept the Brave Blossoms in the game with three penalties to send them into halftime trailing by only three points.
Spurred on by a white-hot atmosphere from the 47,813-strong crowd, Japan then took the lead midway through the second half after a try by substitute Kenki Fukuoka, and held firm for the rest of the match to claim a stunning victory.
The result puts Japan in prime position to reach the quarterfinals for the first time, having claimed two wins out of two so far, and writes another glorious chapter in the team’s Rugby World Cup fairy tale after beating South Africa at the tournament four years ago.
“Internally, there was a lot of belief around what we were doing and what we were working toward,” said Japan head coach Jamie Joseph. “Obviously, the Irish team are a quality rugby side. But we have been preparing for this game for a hell of a lot longer than the Irish have. We’ve been focusing on this game for the last year, probably subconsciously for the last three years. Ireland have been thinking about us since Monday. We thought we had a little bit of an advantage in that, but we just had to execute. And the boys did.”
Japan looked to be heading toward the defeat most had predicted when tries from Garry Ringrose and Rob Kearney put Ireland in the driving seat in the first half, but Tamura’s boot kept Japan alive before a barnstorming performance after the break kept the Irish off the scoreboard for the entire second half.
“First of all, I’d like to congratulate the Japanese for the energy, intensity and skill they brought to the game tonight,” said Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. “They are a big team, and they play big and they were difficult to contain. I thought we controlled the first quarter reasonably well, we scored two tries and it was exactly what we asked for. But the longer the game went, the more oxygen they got.
“It’s not the first time we’ve seen them do it. It’s not a surprise to us that they were incredibly tough to beat.”
Japan made a far more confident start than it had done against Russia in the tournament opener the previous week, and Kotaro Matsushima could have had a try in the fourth minute if the ball had bounced his way behind the Irish line.
Tamura missed a chance to put Japan in front when he hooked a penalty wide of the posts, and the Irish took advantage almost 10 minutes later. Standoff Jack Carty kicked a cute kick toward the corner, and Ringrose easily beat the flailing Ryohei Yamanaka to catch it and touch down.
Tamura reduced the deficit by kicking a penalty soon after, but another Irish try, this time awarded to Kearney after a video replay, extended Ireland’s lead.
Japan began to make inroads into Irish territory but the Brave Blossoms’ task was made more difficult when No. 8 Amanaki Mafi was forced off with an injury in the 31st minute. Regular captain Michael Leitch came on in his place.
But Japan pushed hard as the first half drew to a close, and Tamura kicked two penalties to send the Brave Blossoms into the break trailing 12-9.
Tamura missed another kick 15 minutes after the restart that would have evened the score, but instead Japan took the lead with a sensational try by Fukuoka in the 59th minute. A long pass wrong-footed the Irish defense, and Timothy Lafaele produced a lightning-quick pass for Fukuoka to cross over for the score.
Tamura nailed the conversion to give Japan a four-point lead, and the standoff later added another penalty to put victory within tantalizing distance.
Fukuoka almost scored another try with three minutes remaining, and Japan ended the match camped out on the Irish line to secure another famous victory and spark wild celebrations in the stadium.
Japan continues its campaign against Samoa in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, on Oct. 5, before taking on Scotland in its final pool match in Yokohama on Oct. 13.
“At the moment, we’re just really enjoying what we’ve just done,” said Joseph. “We could be in a situation where we win tonight and lose to Scotland and miss out. That’s what happened the last time (in 2015). We’re still not going to get ahead of ourselves. We’ll have a couple of beers tonight, no doubt.”
Ireland, which had looked so comfortable in its opening 27-3 win over Scotland, next plays Russia in Kobe on Thursday.
“It’s a tough defeat for us to take, but I think the strength of the team will be how they respond and how they rebound from this,” said Schmidt. “A six-day turnaround into this game was tough, but we’ve got a five-day turnaround now until the Russian game in Kobe on Thursday. That will be another challenge for us.”