Rugby: Japan falls short, loses thriller to New Zealand

Rugby: Japan falls short, loses thriller to New Zealand

Japan center Michael Leitch pulls away from a tackle during the first half of the rugby test match against New Zealand at Tokyo’s National Stadium on October 29, 2022. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) – Japan’s Brave Blossoms showed their mettle but fell short in their drive after the final hooter on Saturday, settling for a 38-31 loss in their rugby test with New Zealand’s All Blacks.

Trailing by four, Japan needed to go all the way after the shootout at Tokyo’s National Stadium. But stiff defending by the visitors, reduced to 14 men, and a drive-ending penalty ended any hopes of an upset.

The defeat was Japan’s seventh in seven matches against New Zealand.

“We really wanted it (victory),” Japan’s former World Cup captain Michael Leitch said. “We just made too many subtle mistakes. And if you do that at this level, it’s going to hold you back.”

“Nonetheless, it is clear to see that we are moving in the right direction.”

Time and again, Japan managed to thwart the All Blacks, who were missing a few key players, only for them to give the visitors several second chances.

In a frantic opening 10 minutes, the All Blacks were drawn into Japan’s unstructured game, and proved more than capable of handling the pace.

Samisoni Taukei’aho broke through from an inside pass and offloaded to Brodie Retallick, who crossed in the 11th minute.

Japan’s pressure resulted in Takuya Yamasawa’s penalty in the 19th minute. An interval followed as the All Blacks were repeatedly stopped, only to be the benefactors of Japan’s impatience.

Brayden Ennor, prevented from scoring by a kick in the 22nd minute when Kotaro Matsushima prevented him from grounding in the penalty area, scored four minutes later, with Richie Mo’unga kicking his second conversion.

Some trickery set up New Zealand’s third try with Sevu Reece bursting through the Brave Blossoms defense after receiving the ball from a long line which completely fooled the hosts.

Trailing 21-3, Japan created a turnover in their own half and after a New Zealand defender failed to collect a grubber kick, the Yamasawa fly hacked it forward, scooped up the ball, crossed in the 37th minute and added the extras.

Dylan Riley set up Japan’s second try moments later, collecting a poor pass that headed into contact, before sprinting past defenders and offloading to Yutaka Nagare, who scored. Yamasawa converted to cut the break to four.

New Zealand’s Caleb Clarke opened the second half by breaking a pair of tackles to cross two minutes into the second half.

Instead of wilting, Brave Blossoms turned the energy up a notch through Kazuki Himeno, Warner Deans and substitute Gerhard Van Den Heever.

Japan twice managed two sustained attacks on their tryline, with Himeno stopping the second by stealing the ball from a tackle. Moments later, Warner Deans crossed in the 56th minute after recovering the ball from a kick he charged down. Lee Seung Sin’s conversion made it 28-24.

The All Blacks pack responded quickly with a series of powerful surges on the try line that allowed No.8 Hoskins Sotutu to find space and cross after spinning out of a tackle.

Retallick was sent off in the 66th minute for plunging into a wheel and hitting Himeno’s head with his shoulder. Japan tried a long line out of their own but the All Blacks defended it well and contained a couple of dangerous runs by Matsushima down the touchline.

However, Van Den Heever maintained Japan’s momentum with some dynamic play on the left. He set up Japan’s fourth try by forcing a turnover with a tackle from his own grubber kick.

Himeno then went back up. A good run brought the ball to the tryline, from where he took it straight out of the box and crossed in the 79th minute.

When Japan’s bid to win with a last-ditch drive failed, Mo’unga added to his five conversions with a penalty goal to end the match, the first of Japan’s three autumn Tests to conclude in Europe against England and France.

“This hurts. This was a game we could have won,” Himeno said. “We have two tests left and I think this result can lead to something good.”

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