Rugby

Japan's heroes looking to down Samoa's villains

by Rich Freeman

Kyodo

Much has been made of the Japan players singing along to “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys as a way of bonding, but a more appropriate song for coach Jamie Joseph to play for his team this week would be “Heroes” in the hope of proving David Bowie wrong.

For the Brave Blossoms will be wanting to show that collectively you can be a hero for more than one day, as they look to improve on their impressive start to the Rugby World Cup.

At the same time, Vaeluaga Steve Jackson, whose Samoa team play Japan next in Pool A on Saturday, may be playing “I Fought the Law” in the hope that they too can prove Sonny Curtis wrong.

Two yellow cards and a red in their opening two games have seen the Samoans hit by suspensions, yet they still go into the game knowing a place in the quarterfinals is not beyond them.

Samoa was penalized 14 times in its 34-0 defeat to Scotland on Monday in Kobe, and gave up two penalty tries that allowed the men in dark blue a valuable bonus point.

“We’ve lost two players and one of them got a red card tonight so we’ll see what happens with that,” Jackson said after the game.

“It’s testing but we’ve got Japan in four days’ time and there’s no point in dwelling on what we can’t have. We’ve just got to look forward to what we’ve got and pick this group up.”

To compound issues, Samoa has just four days to recover from the sweltering energy sapping conditions at Kobe Misaki Stadium that also resulted in so many handling errors.

“We had a lot of missed passes out there today. The ball could be best described as a bar of soap,” said Samoa captain Jack Lam.

Tusi Pisi knows the Japan players better than most having spent so many years here with Suntory Sungoliath, the Sunwolves and now Toyota Industries Shuttles.

“We have to keep the ball,” the Samoa No. 10 said of Saturday’s game. “If we give the ball away and give it away cheaply, we put ourselves in a bad situation.”

“Physically we just have to recover. It’s all about mentally now. We have four days off. There is not much we can change except mentally.”

The problem will be getting the ball, because as Japan proved last Saturday in their superb 19-12 win over Ireland, their incredible levels of fitness — for which strength and conditioning coach Simon Jones must get special praise — and their improved discipline meant the Irish went long periods of the game starved of possession.

Japan go into the game at City Of Toyota Stadium knowing discipline will be imperative against the Pacific islanders.

Against Ireland, Japan was penalized just six times, a superb effort given the physical nature of the side it was playing. The Brave Blossoms are expecting more of the same from the opposition on Saturday.

“They are very physical and the outside backs are good on their feet so we will need to contain them,” said Japan center Timothy Lafaele.

Hooker Shota Horie agreed.

“As a forward I want to put set-pieces first, how we put them under pressure at attacking and defensive scrums as well as lineouts, which will be important,” he said.

“They are big, strong at offloads and physically at a high level so we’ll prepare well.”

That physicality, however, is not always channeled correctly.

Against Scotland, the Samoans were occasionally guilty of trying to make a really big (and at times high) hit rather than simply stopping the runner, as exemplified by Tim Nanai-Williams not going low and allowing the diminutive Greig Laidlaw to bounce off him as the scrumhalf went over for the Scots’ second try.

Scotland will be of course be watching Saturday’s game with huge interest, and hoping that Samoan physicality is channeled correctly to ensure much of the Japan buildup is spent recovering.

Gregor Townsend’s team plays Russia next and then has just four days to prepare for its Oct. 13 showdown with the host.

“We are still in the tournament, that is what (Monday’s win) means,” said Townsend, whose side, like Samoa, currently has five points, one back from Ireland and four less than Japan.

“The bonus point gives us the opportunity to go into the next game (against Russia) and aim to get maximum points in that game. If we do that, it will be a game against Japan to see who goes into the quarterfinals.”

“Japan and Ireland are still favorites. We have to win our next two games and pick up at least one bonus point or two.”