YOKOHAMA – Japan beat Scotland 28-21 on Sunday night to claim a place in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals for the first time ever, winning Pool A with a perfect record of four wins from four.
In a game that was only given the green light to be played at International Stadium Yokohama at 10:30 on Sunday morning due to uncertainty over the impact of Typhoon Hagibis, Scotland took an early lead before tries from Kotaro Matsushima, Keita Inagaki and Kenki Fukuoka sent Japan into halftime with a commanding lead.
Fukuoka then scored Japan’s fourth try shortly after the restart to secure his team a bonus point, before Scotland came roaring back with scores from WP Nel and Zander Fagerson to set up a tense finale in front of 67,666 fans.
But the Brave Blossoms stood firm in the face of a fierce late Scottish onslaught and saw out the win, setting up a historic last-eight matchup with South Africa in Tokyo on Oct. 20.
“Before we talk about the game, I think it’s important to acknowledge what went on last night with regards with the typhoon,” said Japan head coach Jamie Joseph. “There has been a lot of publicity around the rugby side of things, but we woke up this morning and 19 people were killed in the typhoon. We talked about that as a team. Sometimes those kinds of things can be overwhelming, but I think they came out in the match.
“I thought the Scottish team were unbelievable. They took it to us right from the start. In some parts of the game they outplayed us and outmatched us, but it’s the tenacity of our team at crucial parts of the test that paid dividends for us.”
Japan made a nervous start to its home World Cup in the opening game against Russia, but the Brave Blossoms have since gone from strength to strength with wins over Ireland, Samoa and now Scotland, and captain Michael Leitch sees no reason why that should stop against South Africa.
“This is great for Japanese rugby,” he said. “Not just Japanese rugby but rugby in Asia and Tier 2 rugby. For us to qualify for the quarterfinals, now we’re shifting the goalposts. I’m not too sure who’ve got next but we’ll start next week and go from there.
“The key to our victory is preparation. It’s been that way from the start of the week. We’re not coming out next week to have a good game and lose. We’re coming out to win.”
Both teams came flying out of the blocks after a moment of silence to honor those who died in the typhoon, but it was Scotland that opened the scoring in the seventh minute. Finn Russell opened up Japan’s defense with a brilliantly inventive kick to the corner, then barged through to touch down moments later.
Yu Tamura missed a long penalty in the 17th minute, but Matsushima got the Brave Blossoms on the scoreboard when he streaked over for a try a minute later. Fukuoka tried to wriggle past the Scots’ defense only to be tackled by Sam Johnson, but his superb one-handed offload to Matsushima gave the winger a clear run to the line. Tamura added the conversion.
Japan then took the lead in the 26th minute, overwhelming the Scotland defense with a relentless attack that ended with prop Inagaki diving over for a try, which Tamura again converted.
The Brave Blossoms then ended the first half in irrepressible style, Timothy Lafaele aiming a low, bouncing kick through a gap in the Scotland defense, and Fukuoka stretching to gather it for Japan’s third try. Tamura landed a monster conversion to give the home team a 21-7 halftime lead.
And Fukuoka struck again just two minutes after the restart, stripping the ball from a Scotland player before racing away to touch down and earn a bonus point for Japan.
Scotland pulled a try back through Nel in the 50th minute, before Fagerson scored another five minutes later to bring Scotland to within only seven points of Japan.
But some heroic Japanese defending over the final 25 minutes kept the Scots from scoring more, and Fumiaki Tanaka kicked the ball after the final gong had sounded to end the game and spark an eruption of joy from the home crowd.
“The confidence to continue and trust the plan is what saw us through,” said Joseph. “The players have to take credit for trusting what we’ve trained and planned. I think that was the difference in the end. And then those last two or three minutes, it was a test match that we didn’t want to lose, and it’s those things like people who we’re playing for that really help us.”