Brave Blossoms Split June Series With Azurri
Japan Fluid In Oita Heat But Struggle Early In Kobe
This year's Lipovitan D Challenge Cup kicked off with a pair of games against Six Nations side Italy. Japan had only beaten the Azurri once previously but were confident going into the series.
2018 June 9th: Oita Bank Dome
In front of a lively crowd of 25,824 (bolstered by a considerable number of students invited in for free by Oita prefecture) Japan rose to the occasion, comprehensively defeating Italy 34-17 in the first ever rugby test match at Oita Bank Dome.
At half time the game was very much in the balance with Japan holding a slender three-point lead, 17-14. The fact that Japan doubled its score in the second half while the Italians, tiring in the humidity, only managed one penalty kick, highlighted the home side’s superior fitness and desire to win.
Before the game Japan and Italy were ranked 11th and 14th in the world respectively. The Brave Blossoms should therefore have been expected to win narrowly, especially at home, but this victory was an emphatic one.
While there have been false dawns before, and things have not all been plain sailing for Japan after the historic win over the Springboks at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, there was a mood of buoyant optimism in Head Coach Jamie Joseph and Captain Michael Leitch’s post-match press conference.
In contrast Italy Head Coach Conor O’Shea spoke openly of his hurt at the loss, and vowed to set the record straight in Kobe next weekend, where the second and final test of this series will be played.
Oita Bank Dome will host three pool games and two quarterfinals in next year’s World Cup.
It takes less than an hour and a half to reach Oita Station on the Sonic Express train from Kitakyushu, and during the tournament there will be free shuttle buses to the stadium.
The roofed venue allows a considerable volume of support, with the sound coming in waves off the rafters, and the thought of massed Welsh choirs singing “Bread of Heaven” at their game against Fiji on Oct 9 is one to savour.
New Zealand also play a pool game on Oct 2nd in Oita with the opponent yet to be decided. Australia take on Uruguay at the same venue three days later.
When questioned post-game about the six / two forwards - backs split on the Italian bench, O’Shea defended it as the best balance for the humid conditions, which he felt takes more energy from the forwards. He also referred to the momentum swinging through the match, and said that Japan controlled the last 20 minutes with “scoreboard energy” in their favour.
The Limerick native said it was no surprise that Japan played well, and he singled out No. 8 Amanaki Lelei Mafi as a special player.
Joseph meanwhile said he was very pleased with the result, and noted that while the sides had been almost equal at half time, in the second half it was Japan’s mental strength that saw them home.
To a question about which point separated the two teams he replied there was no such thing, as rugby is a continuous game for the full 80 minutes, and it was just pleasing that Japan had found ways through to the win.
Joseph praised three players saying "[Left wing No. 11 Kenki] Fukuoka played well and executed some things very well before he tired in the second half but came back again. I thought [Standoff No. 10 Yu] Tamura controlled the game well and there were a couple of moments there when his decision making was outstanding. And [Flanker No. 6 Kazuki] Himeno goes from strength to strength."
Leitch meanwhile said he felt that the game was won before it started. As supporting evidence he mentioned a passionate conversation that morning over breakfast between two squad members, indicating their high focus. He felt that his team’s preparation had been very good, the best so far.
Speaking to NHK after the game, former Japan captain Takuro Miuchi said that the most pleasing aspect of the win was that Japan had fronted up to Italy’s physical challenge. Stability in the set piece (scrums and lineouts) produces quality ball and leads to good attacking opportunities. Japan had shown that they had created a stable platform with good continuity in open play, and he was looking forward to a bright future for this team.
'The Laird of Kitakyushu' - Ian Ruxton : June 9th 2018
2018 June 16th: Noevir Stadium Kobe
A beautiful sunny day at Kobe’s Misaki Park greeted Japan fans buoyed by the previous week's victory over Italy.
There was an expectant atmosphere around the stadium as the Brave Blossoms had put themselves in position for a series win
Despite the clear skies, the fact that the game was a test run of sorts for next year’s World Cup meant the roof over Noevir stadium was closed.
All stadia with retractable roofs will have them closed during the 2019 tournament.
The consolation of missing out on the open air & sunshine was the cooler temperature provided by the stadium air conditioning, a feature appreciated by Italian coach Conor O'Shea who in the post-match conference said, "the less heat, the less humidity, was an energizer."
Yu Tamura and Kotaro Matsushima received the loudest cheers during team introductions with the crowd recognizing the impact the two star players had the Oita victory last week. Tamura, who received his 50th cap led out the Japanese team alone when the teams ran on.
The Azzurri came out hard on attack, but were met with ferocious defence from a team determined to build on their game one victory. Two quick penalties cost Italy their initial momentum. The second, however, was overturned by the TMO as Japan lock Anise was adjudged to have a committed a high tackle, which cost him ten minutes in the Sin Bin.
Italy failed to capitalize on the one-man advantage but Japan also missed out on points as a Yu Tamura penalty goal attempt sailed wide.
In stark contrast to the free-flowing play of the Oita game, there was little momentum in a frustrating first quarter with handling mistakes and penalties preventing either side from stringing together more than few phases of play. The usually polite Japanese Rugby crowd started the game off quietly as expected, but began to get more raucous in an attempt to energize their team.
Things finally got going when a questionable kick infield by left winger Kenki Fukuoka after a promising break was immediately turned into a counter-attack, with Italian players scything through the defence to set up, winger Benveitui who touched down in the corner.
Soon after the restart, Japan was caught offside, and the emboldened Italians kicked for touch rather than going for goal. The visitors then put the Japanese team under massive pressure on the goal line with multiple phases before a TMO goal-line decision awarded a try to the Italian Captain Leonardo Ghiraldini after much deliberation.
The expectant mood of the large crowd began to waver as Italy became more dominant. The victory in Oita was fast becoming a distant memory.
The Azurri immediately went back on the attack after the restart and were soon back in the Japan 22. It was a role reversal of the sublime backline play that the Japanese team displayed in Oita.
This period of Italian play was undoubtedly on Italy coach Conor O’Shea’s mind when he summed up the game with one word: "Wow!"
O’Shea unsurprisingly was pleased with his side’s performance saying, "I thought it was a great test match, the quality of rugby we played was exceptional, there was a change of momentum in terms of our discipline".
As several promising Japanese set pieces fizzled out early on so too did the crowd energy. Watching a game of rugby in Japan is an aural rollercoaster with the stadium atmosphere swinging from respectful silence to wild cheering and applause. In the final minutes of the first half, Japan once again had an excellent opportunity with a line break and an overlap, however, a knock on by one of the Japanese players caused a huge collective gasp of dismay from the crowd. That passage of play perfectly summed up the first half performance of the home side as they headed to the break lucky to be down just 12- 0
Head Coach Jamie Joseph went the bench in the second half putting one of the standouts of last weeks game Amanaki Mafi on perhaps earlier than hoped, as the star loose forward was in the reserves to get a break.
Italian flanker Jake Polledri broke several flimsy tackles four minutes into the half and scored under the posts, once again leaving the stadium in shock as the fortunes of their team continued to tumble. Italy was looking statistically like the team that last week that had 58% of the possession and 61% of the territory.
In that game Japan had 166 tackles but Kobe those tackles weren’t made and the Italians were being rewarded for their efforts.
In the 48th minute winger, Minozzi scooped up a loose ball and scooted down the sideline untouched for a try.
The score was overturned by the TMO though, earning Japan a reprieve and preventing the scoreline reaching 26 -3 The rollercoaster of crowd noise waxed again and reached a deafening crescendo as Tupou finished off an attack with a try.
In the 64th minute after a sustained attack Mafi scored in the corner, and Japan was well and truly back in the game at 17-19.
The crowd had come alive and it felt a like an entirely different game as the players began feeding off the energy.
A 71st-minute penalty goal gave Italy some breathing space. Their confident first half pattern of going for the corner replaced by the sensible option of 3 points. Two minutes later Japan were once again penalized, and Tomasu Allen slotted a 41m goal from out in front.
The home side’s comeback began to falter with the scoreline meaning they needed to score twice in the final six mins.
It seemed all over, but the Japanese refused to go down quietly. A brilliant piece of individual play by Kotaro Matsushima when Japan were hot on attack at the goal line led to a great try. A wayward pass as the ball was spread wide seemed to spell the end of Japan hopes, but Matsushima regathered the ball and scrambled past the last defenders to score. The collective cry of dismay from the crowd as the conversion hit the goalpost was an apt end to the game.
Much like last weeks game, Italy dominated on the stat sheets with 60% possession and 62% territory but unlike week they were able to convert their chances. Italian Captain Ghiraldini praised his young team after what had been a tough week for them. He also praised the Japanese scrum, saying it was equal to any scrum in the Six Nations.
Dean Gutberlet : June 16th 2018