DAVID BARNES @ City of Toyota Stadium
SCOTLAND are going to have to do it the hard way if they are to make the World Cup quarter-finals, after the host nation snatched a controversial bonus-point try in the fifth minute of injury time in their penultimate pool match against Samoa – giving themselves a small but vital edge ahead of what looks certain to be a do-or-die qualification decider next Sunday in Yokohama.
In order to make the last eight, Scotland now need nine points from their final two matches against Russia on Wednesday and Japan four days later whilst depriving Japan of a bonus point, or ten points from those two matches and to restrict Japan to a single bonus point. Both those scenarios would leave the two sides equal on match points with the next counting factor is the head-to-head between the two teams.
However, a real spanner in the works would be if Ireland win but fail to get a bonus point against Samoa in their final pool match next Saturday, Scotland pick up bonus point wins in both of their final two pool matches and Japan manage a solitary bonus point in that last match. That would mean all three teams end up on 15 league points, and with each team having won one and lost one against the other tied teams, the head-to-head would be out the window – with the next counting factor being points differential. Scotland on +10 currently trail Ireland on +52 and Japan on +46, but they do have that game in hand against Russia to make up ground.
Afterwards, Japan head coach Jamie Joseph was keen to push the pressure on to next week’s opponents. “Scotland have another game to play and it will all pan out, but it is obviously better [for us] to have a bonus point than not have one,” he said. “It was difficult to get and it may be the difference in the very end.
“Scotland are a very, very good team,” he added. “They’ve got a lot of experience, a lot of x-factor, and we just saw how clinical they were in beating Samoa last week, and we really struggled against that team.
“I think if we were playing to our potential then it was always going to come down to our final game against Scotland, so it is revving up to be a real ripper – and I can’t wait.
“I know the players can’t wait because we’ve ben subconsciously thinking about it for a couple of years now, so we’ll just wait and see how they [Scotland] get on against Russia. The Russians have proven to be a real handful, particularly physically, so they’ll be up for a biggy … hopefully!”
There’s noise, there’s loud noise, and then there is the sort of roar which reverberated around the steep banks of seating at the City of Toyota Stadium as Japan fired out the blocks into this game and twice had their opponents in trouble in the opening seven minutes, most notably when Lomano Lameki found himself in space up the left touchline, but they had to make do with two Yu Tamura penalties.
Samoa got three points back through the boot of Henry Taefu after Kotaro Matsushima was swallowed up as he collected the second restart and penalised for holding onto the ball on the deck, and the centre then squared it on 14 minutes when Michael Leitch was pulled up for diving round the side of a ruck.
Japan kept their cool, and they were soon back in front with a third Tamura penalty, with Lameki and Matsushima both getting themselves into the game and looking dangerous. Somoa’s cause wasn’t helped when flanker TJ Ioane was sent to the sin-bin for a late shoulder-charge on 24 minutes.
Japan took advantage of the extra man when Leitch excellently snaffled possession at a breakdown in the middle of the park and Matsushima jinked and bounced though a handful of tackles, before the ball was sent along the line for Timothy Lafaele to score against the country of his birth.
Samoa kept in touch with a third Taefu penalty when Pieter Labuschagne was called for a clumsy challenge after the ball was gone, and the Pacific Islanders edged it back to just four points at the start of the second half when Japan were penalised for holding on in front of the posts.
Japan kept their own side of the scoreboard ticking over with a breakdown penalty of their own on 51 minutes, and two minutes later the roar of the crowd returned when some intricate passing and a neat grubber through from Ryoto Nakamura set up an attacking line-out for the home side inside Samoa’s 22, which was collected at the tail and driven over the whitewash for No 8 Kazuki Himeno to score.
Japan now had just over 20 minutes to hunt down the two tries they needed for a bonus-point, but Samoa weren’t done yet and were cutting some nice shapes of their own, and they finally got their reward after several minutes camped on the host team’s line when Taefu spun out of a tackle to score.
This opened up the possibility of a draw, which would have been a marvellous outcome for Scotland – but it wasn’t to be. Japan charged straight back upfield, to send replacement Kenki Fukuoka scooting over on the right. There was just over three minutes left on the clock.
For seasoned Scotland supporters, there was a sense of inevitability about what happened next, although it ended up being a longer and more dramatic process than expected.
Straight from the restart, Japan sniffed out a gap to take play back deep into opposition territory, before winning a penalty which they kicked to the corner.
With 13 men in the maul at one point, the hosts were roared onwards to the line, but it dropped short and Samoa got the put-in. The gong had sounded and it appeared to be all over, especially when the Pacific Islanders were then awarded a free-kick. But they opted to scrum again (presumably in some forlorn hope of going the length to secure a bonus point of their own) and ended up being called for a squint feed.
Japan had one last chance. They went for the scrum themselves, and after one reset the ball was spun out to Matsushima, who scooted over on the left for that all-important try with 84 minutes and 26 second on the clock.
Samoa head coach Steve Jackson supported his team’s decision to go for that scrum at the end instead of running or kicking the free-kick, and stated that poor officiating was the reason it backfired.
“We back our scrum,” he said. “I think if you look at the scrum when we got free-kicked against Josh Tyrell, the Japanese No 8 did exactly the same, straight away in the next scrum, so – again – consistency in refereeing. Sometimes I scratch my head.”
There was a few Scottish people scratching their heads as well.
Japan: R Yamanaka (K Fukuoka 57); K Matsushima, T Lafaele, R Nakamua (R Matsuda 69), L Lemeki; Y Tamura, Y Nagare (F Tanaka 62); K Inagaki (I Nakajima 51), A Sakate (S Horie 40), J Koo (A Ai Valu 51), W van der Walt (U Helu 67), J Moore, M Leitch (H Tui 63), P Lubuschagne, K Himeno.
Samoa: T Nanai-Williams (K Fonotia 40); A See Tuala (T Pisi 53), A Leiua, H Taefu, E Fidow; U Seuteni, D Polataivao (P Cowley 65); Jordan Lay (James Lay 65), S Lam (R Niuia 56), M Alaalatoa ( P Alo-Emile 56) , P Faasalele (S Toleafoa 60), K Le’aupepe, C Vui, T Iaone (J Tyrell 69), J Lam.
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Japan: Try: Lafaele, Himeno, Fukuoka, Matsushima; Con Tamura 3; Pen: Tamura 4.
Samoa: Try: Taefu; Con: Taefu; Pen: Taefu 4.
Scoring sequence (Japan first): 3-0; 6-0; 6-3; 6-6; 9-6; 14-6; 16-6; 16-9 (h-t) 16-12; 19-12; 24-12; 26-12; 26-17; 26-19; 31-19.
Yellow cards –