Japan recovered from a shaky start to get Rugby World Cup 2019 started with a 30-10 win over Russia in Tokyo on Friday. Here are a few things we learned from the game.
We can’t say we weren’t warned
The last time the two teams played, Russia gave Japan an almighty hard time and the Blossoms won 32-27 only at the very end with a try by Michael Leitch. Sure, Japan was at home here but it also meant there was much more pressure on their shoulders. And many of their players wilted under that pressure at the start, especially fullback William Tupou and flyhalf Yu Tamura. Thankfully for them, the Brave Blossoms recovered and won fairly comfortably in the end.
Russia’s key men lived up to the hype
Most of the coverage beforehand was about openside flanker, Tagir Gadzhiev, who used to be an MMA wrestler, and the captain, Vasily Artemyev, who used to play for England Premiership club Northampton.
Both lived up to their reputations.
Fullback Artemyev was safe in defence and kept the Japanese back with his long and searching kicks. He also thwarted Japan’s eventual hattrick hero Kotaro Matsushima from notching what would have been his second with a great tackle when the game was still in the balance, with Russia ahead 7-5
Flanker Gadzhiev was tireless and all-action, and at times looked like a man who looked ready to flip and body-slam his opponent but quickly remembered he was no longer in a cage.
His clash with the Samoans will be interesting.
Japan have gone backwards
Suddenly, Japan are looking like the Japan of the 2011 and 2007 World Cups; that is, a team coached by an ex All Black.
Japan under Jamie Joseph have been looking more like the 2007/2011 teams of John Kirwan than anything like the teams Eddie Jones produced in 2015. This is not hindsight talking.
The Japan of 2015 was taking clear shape from months before. The midfield backline of Tanaka, Ono, Tatekawa and Sau, and fullback Goramaru, was looking pretty solid from the time of the Pacific Nations Cup.
They’ll only look sharper and more cohesive by the time of the World Cup.
On the other hand, Joseph’s teams have looked neither here nor there. There was hope that all we were seeing over the past year or more was Joseph and the team still finding their feet together. But there is nothing like the cohesion seen in Jones’ team. Tamura for one has never looked like the real deal to me, and it showed against Russia.
And in general, Japan look like a team that are again caught between two stools: are they using Kiwis to play a Japanese brand of rugby, or they trying to get Japanese players to play a Kiwi style?
At the very least, Japan need real creativity in midfield, and more stability at the back.
Scotland can rest easy
Japan vs Scotland was looking like the big match of the final round of matches, with Scotland looking likely to be ripe for the plucking by the hosts. But based on this one match, it’s unlikely Gregor Twonsend’s men will be losing any sleep about that match. They will remember instead how well they actually played in the Six Nations this year and the way they recovered to beat France in one of the warmup matches a month ago.
Sure, they also plumbed a few lows, both in the Six Nations and against France in an earlier warm-up. But even in that kind of sad form, they should be good enough to beat this Japan side, unless Joseph can somehow fire up a vast improvement in his men.
Even Samoa too, maybe
We haven’t seen Samoa in action yet but if nothing else, they’ve got to feel they at least have a chance.
Pool A looks like it will be a matter of which one of Ireland or Scotland finishes on top.