The Brave Blossoms win 28-22 in Toulouse to set up a Pool D showdown with the Pumas
Japan stay in the fight for the quarter-finals. An ultimately nervy win over Samoa means the Brave Blossoms face a shootout next week with Argentina to determine who will qualify from Pool D alongside England. Steve Borthwick’s team have been confirmed as pool winners.
Only two points separated these two teams when they met in Sapporo two months ago and only one place separated them in the world rankings.
Yet for much of this critical Rugby World Cup match the gap seemed considerably wider. Not for the first time in this tournament, Samoa were plagued by indiscipline. A raft of penalties was accompanied by one yellow card and one red – wing Ben Lam getting his marching orders for a high tackle early in the second half.
The match had been slow to come to life, even allowing for a well-executed try by Japan flanker Pieter Labuschagne after an early initial incision down the left.
Alai D’Angelo Leuila and Rikiya Matsuda exchanged penalties before Japan struck again. This time Michael Leitch was the beneficiary and Jonathan Taumateine, on his 27th birthday, was sent to the sin-bin for a silly off-the-ball shove at one of the rucks that preceded it.
Matsuda’s touchline conversion made it 17-3 and things looked bleak for Samoa. They had blown one great chance from a 5m scrum when a switch pass by Taumateine failed to find Ben Lam. But stand-off Christian Leali’ifano, filling in as an emergency nine, got the Islanders moving upfield again with renewed energy.
The numbers were balanced up when Japan hooker Shota Horie was binned for a head-on-head tackle. Samoa kicked to the corner and Seilala Lam rumbled over from the driving maul – one facet they have excelled at during this tournament. Half-time was reached, 17-8.
Samoa had 40 minutes to redeem themselves but their ambition was grievously compromised after a poor tackle by Ben Lam directly to the head of Labuschagne. It looked a sure-fire red card and within a few minutes that was confirmed by the TMO Bunker. It was the seventh dismissal of this tournament.
To make matters worse, No 8 Kazuki Himeno crashed over from the subsequent driving maul to extend Japan’s lead to two full scores, 22-8.
Matsuda extended that with another goal, then Kotaro Matsushima had a try chalked off because of a knock-on by Dylan Riley.
There was no raising of the white flag by Samoa, who hit back with a try by Duncan Paia’aua that Leali’ifano converted from wide out.
And after Matsuda stroked over another three-pointer, Leali’ifano went over for Samoa’s third try with three minutes remaining. At 28-22, they had one last chance to salvage an extraordinary victory.
But there was to be no miracle. It is Japan who dream of bigger things in France – and Samoa who are left licking their wounds and wondering where it has gone wrong.
Both teams made late changes before the match. Japan scrum-half Yukata Nagare missed out with a tight calf, with Naoto Saito starting and the uncapped Kenta Fukuda on the bench.
For Samoa, captain and second-row Chris Vui dropped out to attend to a personal matter. Steven Luatua was promoted from the bench and Fritz Lee took the armband.
Japan head coach Jamie Joseph said: “Today just means we got an opportunity to get to a quarter-final. It was a match we had to win and that’s what we’ve done. The game itself was a real arm wrestle. Samoa’s players are big and physical and it was difficult for us, with the brand of rugby we play. The red card hit them but I think the two teams are very even.”
His counterpart, Seilala Mapusua, said: “We still have one more game and we have a lot to play for. We may be out of the quarter-finals but we want to make sure we automatically qualify for Australia 2027 [by finishing third in the pool], which is a very big carrot for us.
“Samoa don’t get many chances to play England, so we will be putting everything into that game. We want to finish the tournament on a positive note.”
Japan Lomano Lemeki; Kotaro Matsushima, Dylan Riley, Ryoto Nakamura, Jone Naikabula; Rikiya Matsuda, Naoto Saito; Keita Inagaki, Shota Horie, Jiwon Gu, Jack Cornelsen, Amato Fakatava, Michael Leitch, Pieter Labuschagne, Kazuki Himeno (capt).
Replacements 16 Atsushi Sakate, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Asaeli Ai Valu, 19 Warner Dearns, 20 Kanji Shimokawa, 21 Kenta Fukuda, 22 Seungsin Lee, 23 Tomoki Osada.
Samoa Duncan Paia’aua; Ed Fidow, Tumua Manu, Alai D’Angelo Leuila, Ben Lam; Christian Leali’ifano, Jonathan Taumateine; James Lay, Seilala Lam, Paul Alo-Emile, Steven Luatua, Theo McFarland, Taleni Junior Agaese Seu, Fritz Lee (capt), Sa Jordan Taufua.
Replacements 16 Sama Malolo, 17 Jordan Lay, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Brian Alainu’u’ese, 20 Alamanda Motuga, 21 Melani Matavao, 22 Neria Fomai, 23 Danny Toala.