Daisuke Ikezaki gathered his teammates in a circle with Japan trailing by two at halftime of their wheelchair rugby match against France.
Japan had trailed for virtually the entire night and Ikezaki told his teammates they were going to have to dig deep to pull this one out.
So that’s what they did. The Japanese kept the match close before using a rock solid defensive performance down the stretch to pull out a thrilling 53-51 win over France on the first day of competition at the Tokyo Paralympics at Yoyogi National Stadium on Wednesday night.
“I told them to be more aggressive on both offense and defense,” Ikezaki said.
Yukinobu Ike led the way with 20 tries for Japan, while Ikezaki finished with 13 and Shinichi Shimakawa had 10.
“We talked about strategy,” Ike said when asked what Ikezaki said to the team. “What we were doing wasn’t working, so we had to change the strategy.”
Japan’s main problem was its inability to keep France’s Jonathan Hivernat bottled up. Hivernat finished with a game-high 31 tries.
“It was a very nice match between the two teams and it showed the very high level of wheelchair rugby,” Hivernat said.
The Tokyo Paralympics could not have asked for a more exciting game to cap the first night of wheelchair rugby. The match was tight throughout, with France leading by two points after each of the first two periods. The teams were deadlocked at 41-41 after the third.
France went ahead by one early in the fourth period after a try by Sebastien Verdin. Cedric Nankin then stole the ball from Ikezaki and passed to Hivernat for a try that made the score 43-41.
France kept Japan at arm’s length until a try by Seiya Norimatsu made the score 44-43. Japan later pulled even after a steal led to a try from Shimakawa.
The teams traded blows over the next few minutes before a try by Masayuki Haga evened the score at 47-47. Japan then came up with a defensive stop as France turned the ball over.
Haga then scored another try to give Japan the lead.
The Japanese were now tasked with protecting the lead instead of chasing it and they answered French tries with scores of their own to maintain their slim advantage.
Japan got a little breathing room when an offensive foul by France and a try by Ikezaki allowed the Japanese to take a 51-49 lead with 1:41 left.
Japan turned up the defensive intensity again and managed to hold off France the rest of the way.
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