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Five takeaways from the Rugby World Cup clash as Brave Blossoms back-row shines

Japan celebrate after winning the Rugby World Cup Pool D match against Samoa. Credit: Alamy

Japan celebrate after winning the Rugby World Cup Pool D match against Samoa. Credit: Alamy

Japan celebrate after winning the Rugby World Cup Pool D match against Samoa. Credit: Alamy

Following a 28-22 victory for Japan over Samoa in Pool D of the Rugby World Cup, here’s our five takeaways from the match at Stadium de Toulouse on Thursday.

The top line

Japan kept their chances of World Cup qualification alive as Lomano Lemeki and an excellent shift from the Brave Blossoms back-row, all of whom managed to get onto the scorecard, delivered a trademark display of precision rugby under pressure to put paid to Samoa‘s 2023 Rugby World Cup campaign.

Samoa were largely complicit in their own downfall, with scrum-half Jonathan Taumateine seeing yellow for a professional foul and Ben Lam seeing red for a shoulder tackle just as Taumateine came back on the pitch early in the second half, becoming the seventh man in this year’s tournament to receive his marching orders. Samoa’s discipline might not look bad on paper, but it was more so where they conceded penalties and the severity of their transgressions that cost them.

It was an impressive display from Japan, another underwhelming one from undoubtedly talented Samoa, and an outstanding one from skipper Kazuki Himeno and his colleagues in the Japanese back-row, but they will rue their inability to get the bonus points on offer, bearing in mind the closeness of Pool D and the likely permutations of the closing weekend.

That back-row

With 34-year-old Michael Leitch in vintage form nipping over for a trademark try in the wide corners, and with Lemeki’s power running creating Japan’s first for openside Lappies Labuschagne, skipper Himeno completed the hat-trick for Japan’s superb back-row as he benefited from a wonderfully pacy rolling maul to score early in the second half.

It wasn’t only about try scoring. Himeno was an outstanding presence both sides of the ball, responsible for a couple of crucial steals, whilst the old man Leitch’s intelligence in the lineout and close quarter contests reminded us all of his immense consistency and contribution in the red and white hoops he has worn for so long and with such pride. He almost capped his day off with another wonderful try assist for Kotaro Matsushima but a fingertip of a knock-on from Jack Cornelsen in the build-up saw the try chalked off, but the stats revealed him making 19 tackles, seven lineout takes and 43 metres carried in an immense performance.

Factor in the tackle count and work rate of hooker Shota Horie who managed 15 bone crunching hits in his 46 minutes on the pitch and it’s easy to see that the difference in this game was in the relative displays of the loose forwards, together with the running power of the outstanding Lemeki in the back field.

Contrasting styles

Watching these two immensely gifted sides go at each other hammer and tong for 80 minutes was a lesson in differing styles. Japan are a precision rugby side, mobile and accurate, with a wonderful defensive system that relies upon getting two men deep behind the first tackle to prevent getting into scramble defence. They attack space, using clever footwork to change the point of contact and to remove power tackles from bashing them back in contact and their speed of ruck is quite something – sub 2.5 seconds for this match, with the whole team owning the clearing role, very much working in a low to high body position. As their player steps before contact, they look for that support clearer – it’s intuitive and clever rugby with ball in hand from the Brave Blossoms.

By contrast, Samoa are a power team, relying upon individualism and power to break contact – and it’s contact rather than space that they consistently seek. But at times, this holds them back as they start to become a one on one team, looking for one moment of brilliance to smash through the primary defence. But against sides as well organised as Japan, brute power is rarely enough and Samoa’s loss was a saliant reminder of the need to operate as a team rather than individuals in Test rugby.

Punching below

However, when you consider the talent riches in the Samoan team you have to wonder why they’re not achieving more than they are and why they cannot use their experience to operate in a more joined up fashion.

Players like Steven Luatua, Fritz Lee, Jordan Taufua and Theo McFarland dominate the domestic leagues they play in, delivering match-winning performances week in and week out for their various clubs and only McFarland really walked off the pitch with his reputation enhanced.

That man McFarland – outstanding for Saracens all season until his ACL injury in January, put in a shift of quite monumental proportions, making drive after drive and carry after carry and it was his work in close quarters in the final moments that saw Samoa finally create a numerical mismatch in the wide channels to send Christian Leali’ifano over for a try that gave Samoa the losing bonus-point.

But Samoa have punched way below their own weight; four yellow and one red card(s) in this tournament tells its own tale and no side can compete with this level of self-inflicted handicap. That indiscipline, coupled with disjointed attacking play should be Samoa’s biggest work-ons in their review before they face England next Saturday.

The week ahead

Pool D now looks like a straight shoot-out between Japan and Argentina to join England in the quarter-final stages, assuming that Los Pumas dispose of Chile in the South American derby on Saturday.

Samoa will walk away from this game and Rugby World Cup 2023 with only themselves to blame for not maximising their own huge talent. Yet again they left it too little too late to fire their big shots and failed completely to get any form of momentum in the early stages. It was almost a carbon copy of their performance against Argentina and to add insult to injury, their second-half performance with 14 men was far better than their first with 15.

For Japan, the match with Argentina will be a fascinating one. Japan have created pace and opportunity with ball in hand all World Cup and they know they have the speed to get around any team. But against Los Pumas they face one of the biggest defensive sides in Test rugby. The real battle will be again in that back-row clash; the technical brilliance of the Brave Blossom unit against the behemoths of Argentina, arguably the most powerful back-row in the world.

With all to play for and with contrasting styles once again, Argentina v Japan in Nantes next Sunday will be one to relish – and also a match that looks rather too close to call.

READ MORE: Samoa player ratings: Ben Lam red card costs Pacific Islanders in defeat to Japan

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