YOKOHAMA, Japan, Oct 13 – Pacy Japan will pit their structured ball-holding and accuracy in attack against a tough-as-teak South Africa side in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals next weekend after an electrifying 28-21 victory over Scotland.
It would have been a crying shame for all involved at a packed Yokohama Stadium had the Pool A decider not gone ahead following the deadly Typhoon Hagibis that swept through eastern Japan overnight.
World Rugby gave the green light and the spectacle on show was a refreshing take on a sport that often degenerates into a scripted battle of dominance where there is little enterprise on show.
Jamie Joseph’s Japanese team, a mix of startling speedsters and hardened, defensively savvy veterans, demonstrated not only a devastating attacking verve but also an ability to retain possession that more than deserved the deafening roars of “Nippon! Nippon!” that echoed around the stadium for much of the game.
Fly-half Yu Tamura was at the heart of everything good Japan did, although he did miss two first-half penalties that could have handed the host nation some breathing space in a tense encounter which Scotland had to win without conceding any bonus points to reach the last eight.
Tamura often allowed irrepressible hooker Shota Horie in as first receiver to set up some forward drives. Then quick as a flash, scrum-half Yutaka Nagare would switch direction to find his half-back partner to unleash his backline.
Scotland started with Stuart Hogg, one of the best attacking footballers in world rugby, at full-back. But there was no rush defence from the men in blue in front of him, Scottish centres Sam Johnson and Chris Harris sitting decidedly deep on a sliding defence that often left the outside men, Tommy Seymour and in particular Darcy Graham, outnumbered and exposed when the ball was moved wide.
With centre Timothy Lafaele and Tamura both also offering the option of grubbers through the first line of defence, Scotland were left with a mountain to climb to combat their all-round attacking prowess.
– Dining out –
Japan racked up three tries in the first-half after Finn Russell had opened the scoring for Scotland with a well-taken try.
Winger Kotaro Matsushima went over for his fifth try of the tournament as Japan targeted Graham’s left wing, man-of-the-match Kenki Fukuoka producing a superb offload to give his fellow winger an easy run-in.
The second try could have prop Keita Inagaki dining out free at any Japanese rugby club for the rest of his life.
The Brave Blossoms launched into the Scottish 22m area, Horie producing another excellent offload before full-back William Tupou found Inagaki on his inside, the prop touching down for a memorable front-rower’s five-pointer.
The third came from a Lafaele dink through, Fukuoka gathering magnificently with one hand to go over the whitewash unopposed.
The statistics for the opening 40 minutes did not lie: Japan beat 21 defenders, enjoyed 74 percent of possession and 75 percent of the rugby was played in the opposition half. Scotland made a whopping 112 tackles.
The partisan home crowd went wild when Fukuoka bagged his second, and a bonus-point for the fourth try, shortly after the restart.
A hard-hitting blitz defence, with outstanding captain Michael Leitch at the fore, unsettled Scotland and Harris was caught in a double tackle, Fukuoka going high and stripping the ball with ease before sprinting in from 35 metres.
The Scots fought back with two tries from props WP Nel and Zander Fagerson, giving the end of the game a helter-skelter feel reminiscent of the Six Nations match against England when they fought back from 31-0 down to finish tied at 38 points apiece.
But Japan refocused and stepped up their defensive efforts to set up what promises to be a real clash of the cultures against the Springboks, a side they famously defeated in pool play at the 2015 World Cup.