Japan overcame a nightmare start to its own Rugby World Cup to clinch a 30-10 victory over Russia in the tournament’s opening game Friday.
Inspired by the wonderfully fleet-footed Kotaro Matsushima, the first Japanese man to score a hat-trick at the Rugby World Cup, the host nation recovered from conceding a fourth-minute try to overcome a resilient and rugged Russian team that had threatened to ruin opening night.
Four tries, some exhilarating attacking play and the sight of Matsushima scoring three times to cement his place in Japanese rugby history thrilled the majority of the 50,000 fans packed inside Tokyo stadium.
This victory had been expected, such has been the improvement in Japanese rugby, and the impact of the team’s performance at the 2015 World Cup.
Amid all the hustle and bustle of an international tournament and the hyperbole that often surrounds the country hosting it, perhaps it’s worth remembering just how far Japanese rugby has come.
Almost four years ago to this very day, Japan’s players arrived on the English south coast for a day that would transform the sport’s image across the country.
It was in Brighton that Japan produced one the most astonishing results the sport has ever witnessed, defeating the two-time champion South Africa courtesy of Karne Hesketh’s dramatic late try.
That 34-32 victory not only breathed new life into Japanese rugby, but brought with it a new generation of fans.
Before the 2015 tournament, Japan had not managed to win a single game for 24 years. Under then coach Eddie Jones, it became the first nation not to make the quarterfinal stage after winning three group matches at the competition.
A study conducted by YouGov in 2013 found that 21% of the Japanese population liked rugby – a figure that has no doubt grown somewhat with the team’s success and hosting of this tournament.
This result will also boost a tournament that, like so many large sporting events, often relies on the success of its host nation. England can attest to this after it was forced to watch the later stages of the 2015 edition on television after crashing out in the group stage.
For Japan’s players, the wait for the tournament must have felt like an eternity. Speaking ahead of the game, players confessed to nerves from the extra weight of expectation that been placed upon them.
Perhaps that explains the team’s opening to this contest against Russia, a team it had beaten in five of the six previous meetings between the teams.
Russia, ranked 20th in the world, only qualified for the tournament in May last year after Spain, Belgium and Romania were sanctioned for fielding ineligible players.
The third lowest ranked side in the tournament, its Welsh coach Lyn Jones believes Russia is a “sleeping giant of rugby.”
That may well be proved true, one day. But if sleeping giants could dream, then surely it would involve scoring the first try of the World Cup against the host nation.
Few had expected Russia to give Japan too many problems, so when Kirill Golosnitskiy ran through to score, easily converted by Yury Kushnarev, there were more than a few eyebrows raised.
Perversely, that setback appeared to ease Japan’s nerves. Gradually, those in the red and white began to move more freely.
It took seven minutes for Japan to score a try of their own with Matsushima touching down after Timothy Lafaele had created space with a wonderfully timed offload.
Though it missed the resulting conversion, Japan, by now playing at a level which Russia struggled to live with, was in full control.
Where Russia had once looked sprightly and able to break in the opening half hour, its players now stumbled around the field, throwing arms at shadows as Japan danced to the beat of the Taiko drum – strong, fast and unrelenting.
As halftime grew nearer, Russia finally succumbed to the inevitable.
Having already seen a try ruled out for an infringement, Japan’s Matsushima took advantage of the extra space to run through for his second of the game. Yu Tamara’s conversion added an extra two points to give Japan a 12-7 lead at the break.
Buoyed by that try, Japan began the second half in similar fashion with Yu’s penalty extending his side’s lead to eight points.
Two minutes later and Japan scored again, this time flanker Pieter Labuschagne grabbing the ball away from the Russians and charging for the line.
At last, daylight. Matsushima added his third try of the game with 12 minutes remaining to add some further gloss and extend Japan’s lead to 20 points.
That fourth try, which secured a bonus point, may yet prove crucial given the more strenuous tests that lie in wait for the host nation.
Ireland, the world’s No.1 ranked team, are next up a week on Saturday, with Samoa and Scotland also likely prove difficult opposition.
But then again, they also said that about South Africa. Japan will be ready.