Japan have their fans as well as their coaching staff to thank for a historic victory against Scotland on Sunday, writes JON CARDINELLI at the Yokohama Stadium.
‘It’s on!’ declared thousands of rugby fans as news about the Japan-Scotland match in Yokohama filtered through various social media channels on Sunday morning. World Rugby later confirmed that the ground was ready to host a potentially explosive pool-stage finale.
There was a carnival-like atmosphere on the trains, on the road to the stadium and at the ground itself as fans prepared to experience one of the most important fixtures of the tournament. How fitting it was that Typhoon Hagibis – which ripped through the Tokyo region on Saturday night and in the early hours of Sunday morning – did not have the final say.
Japan – spurred on by the passionate cherry and white contingent in the stands – seized the opportunity to beat Scotland, top Pool A and set up a quarter-final showdown with the Springboks. Jamie Joseph’s charges claimed their fourth-straight win – as well as their second tier-one scalp – to prove that they can indeed rise to the big occasion.
The sense of occasion certainly wasn’t lost on the crowd. The fans were vocal from the outset, and there was a moment in the first half where it felt as if another earthquake was rippling through the area.
An explosion punctuated each try scored by Japan. And the more the fans screamed, the better the hosts seemed to play.
Their faith was tested in the early stages, though, when flyhalf Finn Russell scored for Scotland. At the other end of the park, wave after wave of Japanese attack washed up on the immovable rock that was the Scotland defence.
Japan persisted with their tactics. Slowly but surely they managed to wear Scotland down.
A break down the touchline culminated in a score for the Kotaro Matsushima. The hosts started to find more space round the fringes and in the wider channels.
They began to win the collisions and offload in contact. It wasn’t long before that granitic Scotland defence was reduced to rubble.
On Friday, Bok coach Rassie Erasmus highlighted the threat of the Japan attack as well as the influence of the local crowd. He suggested that Scotland may be in for a tough time in the Pool A finale and that the Boks would have their work cut out for them in a potential quarter-final showdown with the Brave Blossoms.
The fixture on Sunday night would have given Erasmus and company food for thought. The Boks should be wary of allowing Japan a surfeit of possession in the coming playoff. They will have to take their opportunities – and sooner rather than later in the contest – in order to neutralise Japan’s other major weapon: the crowd.
One can understand why the Boks might want to face Japan rather than Ireland in a World Cup playoff. Ireland were ranked No 1 in the world heading into this tournament. They have the forwards to match any side in the competition while their kicking and aerial game is on par with that of the All Blacks.
That said, Japan have undergone a transformation since the start of this tournament. They’re not the same team that the Boks beat 41-7 six weeks ago.
Some expressed their concerns about the team’s temperament and tactics following the unconvincing win against Russia in the opening World Cup match. The belief in Joseph’s plan and personnel boomed, however, following the big wins against Ireland and Samoa.
What will the most recent win against Scotland do for Japan’s confidence? How many more gears does this team have, and how much louder can a crowd of 70,000-plus scream?
What will the reading on the Richter scale be when Japan clash with the Boks at the Tokyo Stadium next Sunday?
The Boks won’t have to deal with Ireland in the quarter-finals. They will have to deal with a very unique challenge in Joseph’s Japan, though, and would do well to prepare for it.
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