TOYOTA, AICHI PREF. – Japan made it three wins out of three at the Rugby World Cup and moved within touching distance of the quarterfinals with a 38-19 victory over Samoa — including a bonus point — on Saturday night.
The Brave Blossoms went into the match at City of Toyota Stadium with impressive wins over Russia and Ireland at the tournament already under their belts, and Timothy Lafaele set them on their way to another with an irrepressible first-half try.
Kazuki Himeno added another in the 54th minute to put Japan firmly in control of the match, but a try by Samoa’s Henry Taefu kept the result in the balance until Kenki Fukuoka made the game safe with a score in the 76th minute.
Kotaro Matsushima then secured what could be a crucial bonus point with the Brave Blossoms’ fourth try on the final play of the game, sending them into their final pool game against Scotland in Yokohama on Oct. 13 in prime position to reach the quarterfinals for the first time.
“I feel very proud and a little bit relieved,” said Japan head coach Jamie Joseph. “We had to earn the victory tonight. We were a bit frantic in the first half, I thought, and we didn’t execute exactly what we wanted to do. But after halftime I felt that we were in control, even though Samoa kept coming for us.
“Consistency has always been a goal, that’s no secret. I think the players can understand that through consistent practices every day, it’s going to pay out. I think you saw that tonight. What I witnessed tonight was against a very tough Samoan side, our team had incredible belief right until the very end, and the bench that came on in the second half had a massive impact on the game.”
Matsushima’s dramatic last-gasp try means the Brave Blossoms could still reach the last eight even if they lose against Scotland – depending on other results – but Joseph cautioned against going into the game with anything other than a winning mentality.
“Let me put everyone straight,” he said. “I think we’ve got a really awesome opportunity to do something that has never been done before. That’s exciting. No one thought we could win against Ireland and now everyone thinks we can win every game. That’s how silly it is in one week.
“Our players understand what’s going on and we understand how difficult next week’s going to be. But we can’t play our best rugby if we think like that. We’ll be going out there without a fear of losing, just play our game and keep trusting in what we’ve been doing.”
After facing the Samoan version of the haka – the Siva Tau – Japan took an early lead through two Yu Tamura penalties within the first eight minutes.
Samoa hit straight back with two penalties from the boot of Taefu to level the score in the 16th minute, before another Tamura penalty eight minutes later eased Japan back in front.
A yellow card for Samoa’s TJ Ioane for a late tackle then gave Japan a temporary one-man advantage, and the Brave Blossoms quickly made it count. Michael Leitch stole the ball to set the home team off on the attack, and after a period of sustained pressure, Lafaele broke through to touch down for a try which Tamura converted.
Taefu reduced the deficit with another penalty to send Japan into halftime with a seven-point lead, and another Taefu penalty five minutes after the restart brought Samoa even closer.
Tamura kicked a penalty of his own to give Japan a little breathing space, before the Brave Blossoms really extended their lead with their second try. Japan won the ball at a lineout and drove Samoa back over its own line, and Himeno finished off the move before Tamura added the conversion.
Samoa refused to accept defeat, however, and Taefu set up a nervy finale when he crossed the line for a try in the 73rd minute and kicked the conversion himself to cut Japan’s lead to seven points.
But substitute Fukuoka made the game safe with Japan’s third try of the game, stretching the Samoan defense to go over in the corner.
Matsushima then secured the bonus point after Japan won a free kick from a Samoan scrum, with the winger touching down with the last play of the match to set off wild celebrations among the 39,695-strong crowd.
“When they decided to go for that last scrum, everyone knew we wanted to go for the bonus point and that it was going to be really important for us,” said Japan game captain Pieter Labuschagne. “All eight players in the scrum did a really good job and we managed to get a free kick from that.
“I think we had a really good base with the scrum, and then once Matsu crossed that try line, everyone was delighted. We worked for it and it was in the 85th minute so it was hard work. You could see that everyone was overjoyed that he was over the try line.”