At the end of a weekend of physical and emotional chaos, Japan played with all the clarity and precision that has defined their tournament so far.
With the death count still rising (at last count 35) and the fall out from Hagibis far from over, it was a feat in and of itself that the game was even played, that it turned out such an incredible spectacle is a testament to the players, organisers and resilience of the Japanese people. The final score, 28 – 21, tells only half the story – this was a whirlwind of a game, a true advert for rugby as a sport.
But it was also more than a game. It was a moment of joy for a nation still in mourning, still suffering. As captain Michael Leitch stated afterwards, “before the match at the team hotel the players already knew this game was about more than just us, that a lot of people suffered in the typhoon for this game to happen.”
Yet this responsibility did not in anyway burden or overwhelm Japan. The stats at half time were incredible. Japan had enjoyed nearly eighty percent possession, forced Scotland into making four times as many tackles and denied them entry into the Japanese twenty-two after eighth minute. They speak to a first half in which the Brave Blossoms were utterly dominant.
Japan were inspired, relentless, skillful and incisive; they attacked and defended with immense organisation and physicality, while their invention on the front foot proved the vital difference between the sides. Likewise, their fabled fitness (and favorable scheduling, it must be admitted) gave them the ability to keep the ball for large periods of the game, running the Scots ragged.
After dominating the opening procedures, Scotland looked sluggish, stale and bereft of creativity for the next fifty minutes. Their short turnaround cannot have helped in this regard, but, credit to them, they revived the contest with a flurry of second half scores. Jamie Ritchie in particular was fantastically dogged and determined, whilst Zander Fagerson added much needed impact from the bench.
Ultimately though, they were unable to stem the flow of Japanese points. The Scots simply could not generate the same speed of ball and their backline seemed a step behind. Neither Hogg nor Russell were able to impose themselves on the game.
Questions will inevitably asked, indeed the inquest has already begun, but for the time being let us revel in Japan’s brilliance, rather than pick faults in this frustratingly inconsistent Scotland side.
Every one of the players in red and white was incredible, but chief amongst them were Kotaro Matsushima, Timothy Lafaele, Ryoto Nakamura, Yu Tamura, Kenki Fukuoka, Yutaka Nagare, the inspirational Michael Leitch, Kazuki Himeno and Shota Horie, all of whom were unbelievable.
It was a day full of poignant, emotionally charged moments, and the Japanese players rose to the occasion. The crowd, which joined in a minute silence before kick-off, was rattled slightly by the quick Scottish start but soon roused to deafening levels of support.
All tournament Japan have been playing like a tier one nation. They have proved too good for both Scotland and Ireland this World Cup – playing a brand of rugby that suits their players and has enthralled the global audience. How long can it be until they are recognised at the elite table of World Rugby?
Either way, if South Africa in the quarter finals proves a bridge too far, the Japanese players leave with their heads held high and memories to savour for a lifetime. This last few weeks will have done immeasurable good for rugby in their country, region and the wider world.
Finally, a word must go to the organisers for getting the game to go ahead. Scottish rugby’s tasteless threats to take World Rugby to court in the face of such death and destruction aside, this was a magnificent spectacle, a game for the ages. In the end, Japan were deserving winners.
Written by Joe Ronan