TOPRugby World Cup 2019Japan Makes Rugby World Cup History in Thrilling Win Over Scotland

Japan Makes Rugby World Cup History in Thrilling Win Over Scotland

By Matthew Hernon

It was an emotionally charged evening in Yokohama on Sunday night. Just 24 hours earlier Typhoon Hagibis swept through the country leaving a trail of destruction. The full extent of the damage is still unknown but at the time of writing 31 people had been confirmed dead, 15 missing and more than 180 injured.

Three matches had been called off and this one was also under threat. Organizers slept at the Nissan Stadium, ready to give a full inspection on Sunday morning. At around 10:30am news started filtering through that the match would be played, a remarkable effort from all concerned following such a catastrophe. This was now an event not to be missed.

More than 70,000 were in attendance to witness what was arguably the game of the tournament so far. A sea of red and white greeted the players as they made their way to the field. There was a moment’s silence to pay respect for the victims of the typhoon before the anthems played, sung with an incredible amount of passion and emotion.

Some suggested the Japanese team would have been happy for this match to have been called-off as it would have guaranteed their passage to the knockout stages. Nonsense. These players wanted to show the world that they topped the group on merit. They wanted to qualify in style without any asterisk next to their name.

It was Scotland, needing to win by eight points, who opened the scoring, on six minutes as Finn Russell’s try and Greg Laidlaw’s conversion gave Gregor Townsend’s men a 7-0 lead. Japan hit back 12 minutes later with Kotaro Matsushima running on to a sumptuous one-handed offload from Kenki Fukuoka to go over. Yu Tamura’s kick leveled the scores.

The momentum had swung. Japan looked irresistible. The second try from Keita Inagaki was simply sublime. The speed of passing by the Japanese players before the ball arrived in the hands of the prop was mesmerising. Scotland had no answer as the Brave Blossoms just kept coming. Kenki Fukuoka added a third try before the break following a beautiful kick from Timothy Lafaele. A deserved 21-7 lead at half-time, Jamie Joseph’s side were closing in on the quarterfinals.

A second try from the outstanding Fukuoka at the beginning of the second half confirmed the bonus point for Japan. It has been said that the 27-year-old, who played at the 2015 World Cup and for the Japan Sevens side at the Rio Olympics, will retire after Tokyo 2020 to become a doctor. Determined to leave his mark on the game, he has been one of the standout players in the group stages and you feel he could walk into almost any team in the world.

Fukuoka’s try meant Scotland needed a miracle. They weren’t about to give up, though, and prop Willem Nel gave them hope when he went over on 50 minutes. Five minutes later a try by Zander Ferguson narrowed the margin again. Russell’s conversion meant Japan now lead by just seven.

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That, however, was the last of the scoring. The Blossoms defended brilliantly. The atmosphere was deafening as Fumiaki Tanaka booted the ball into touch to confirm the five points that secured qualification for Japan as group winners. Four games, four wins and some exhilarating rugby. They have lit up this tournament and should no longer be seen as a Tier Two nation. Certainly not if they continue to play like this.

South Africa awaits in the last eight in what should be an intriguing rematch of the “Miracle of Brighton” from four years ago. What odds on another stunning victory? The way they are playing you wouldn’t rule it out.

“Look around and see how special this is,” said coach Jamie Joseph after the game. “I want to acknowledge those families who lost people in the typhoon, we’re celebrating tonight but we recognise some people won’t be, and we want to acknowledge that.”

“Tonight, we went to another level, everyone who entered the game gave 150%. Behind me I have some great coaches and that comes out with the way we play. Japanese haven’t trusted themselves in the tough moments before and this team has changed that and as we’ll carry that forward.”

Feature image by Clive Rose – World Rugby via Getty Images