Japan coach Eddie Jones got the fast start he wanted as his side lifted up a gear to beat Korea 66-10 in round four of the Asia Rugby Championship at the Level-5 Stadium in Fukuoka on Saturday.
Having struggled to play at any real pace in either of their two opening games, against Korea away and Hong Kong in Tokyo, Japan put in a much more fluid performance with the forwards giving their speedy backs plenty of good ball.
Kenki Fukuoka (pictured) marked his return to international rugby with a hat-trick of tries, while Karne Hesketh bagged a well-earned brace. There were also tries for Ryu Koliniasi Holani, Luke Thompson, Harumichi Tatekawa, Kensuke Hatakeyama and Ayumu Goromaru, who also kicked eight conversions.
“Today was all about attitude,” said Jones. “Today the team were in their worst physical condition in three years in terms of fatigue and I am pleased they worked through it. We got a little tired 10 minutes after half-time but the reserves came on and did their job and lifted things again.”
Korea had battled bravely to a 56-30 loss against the Brave Blossoms in round one, but this time they could only manage a try by Jegal Bin, converted by Park Hang Yul, and a penalty by Oh Youn Hyung.
With Rugby World Cup 2015 only four months away, Jones will be delighted by the return of Fukuoka, who hadn’t played for the Brave Blossoms since last June due to injury but scored with his first touch following a great cross kick from Yu Tamura in the opening minute.
Korea hit back 10 minutes later when Jegal intercepted a loose pass from Goromaru, but they were never able to repeat their heroics of three weeks ago when they led Japan halfway through the first half in Incheon.
Tatekawa finished off some free-flowing rugby in the 16th minute even though Japan were a man down with Goromaru in the sin-bin for a late tackle, and the scoreboard kept on ticking over with the hosts leading 31-7 at the break.
Hesketh powered over in the 24th minute, Goromaru made up for his time in the naughty chair with a try five minutes later, before Hatakeyama was on the end of a well-worked driving maul just a minute before the break.
With both coaches going to the bench, the second half started slowly before Japan's new combinations started to click, resulting in a further five tries, with Fukuoka showing his impressive speed to score the try of the half in the 64th minute.
“The attitude of the players was very good and we fought it out for the whole game,” said Hatakeyama, who led the side in the absence of Michael Leitch, who is playing Super Rugby in New Zealand with the Chiefs.
“Considering how intense the training has been I think we played well and I am proud of our effort.”
Korea must now regroup to face Hong Kong next weekend, a match which will determine who finishes second in the inaugural Top 3. Japan will then conclude their campaign against Hong Kong the following weekend.
Shock win for Japanese women
The Brave Blossoms would have been inspired by the performance of their women’s team in the curtain raiser after they dominated possession and territory for large periods of their encounter with Asia’s number one side Kazakhstan.
Japan had led 16-0 the defending champions – who played at Women’s Rugby World Cup 2014 in France – at the break after captain Ai Tasaka (pictured) kicked two penalties in the opening quarter before winger Noriko Taniguchi and flanker Chisoto Yookoo
Kazakhstan inevitably regrouped in the second half and hit back within two minutes through towering centre Lyudmila Korotikh and then their greater physicality saw hooker Yelena Yevdokimova touch down after another Tasaka penalty for Japan.
Full-back Aigerym Daurembayeva’s impressive conversion from the touchline further lifted Kazakhstan as they closed in on a bonus point, trailing 19-12 with 10 minutes to go in Fukuoka.
However Japan, playing in front of a vocal home crowd, were not to be denied, rallying to ruthlessly snuff out the Kazakh comeback with a try through winger Mizuki Honma in the 74th minute and then a last-minute penalty from Tasaka.
Japan’s victory means the Asia Rugby Women’s Championship will be decided in the final round on 23 May when Hong Kong host the Japanese in a curtain raiser to the men’s encounter between the two nations.
Kazakhstan still lead the table despite the loss with six points, one more than Japan with Hong Kong yet to register a point after losing 40-0 to the defending champions last month.
Photo credit: Kenji Demura / RJP
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