Japan left their mark on Twickenham following their invigorating first-half performance against England, which saw them lead 15-10 at the break. Although they succumbed to a 35-15 defeat, Oliver Trenchard looks at the five big talking points for the Brave Blossoms.
No player epitomised the courageousness and braveness of Japan on Saturday more than Michael Leitch. The Toshiba back-row produced a gladiator performance in the greatest coliseum of rugby, reminiscent of that South Africa victory where he announced his arrival on the global stage. The 30-year-old made menacing runs and often made himself an option on the right wing alongside Akihito Yamada to reek havoc in the England defence. He was faultless in the line-out, majestically receiving, then offloading the ball to Tanaka. As captain, he opted to kick to touch in search of greater reward when three points could have been the easier option. His numbers speak for themselves: The most defenders beaten In the match (7), the joint-most clean breaks in the match alongside Kenki Fukuoka (5), more metres gained than any England player (88m) and not a single tackle missed. The Brave Blossoms are fortunate to have a captain like Leitch and should hope that his spirit and sheer tenacity rubs off on the younger players going into next year’s tournament.
If there were questions marks about Japan’s line-out after a few lost throws against New Zealand, they all but put those questions to bed against England with a superb set of line-outs led by Michael Leitch and hooker Atsushi Sakate, the latter in only his third year of professional rugby. The assortment of throws that the 25-year-old projected into the Twickenham air was reminiscent of the high-risk line-outs that Sunwolves have tried and tested since their inauguration into Super Rugby. A mixture of short, long, underarm and even one that purposely skipped the entire forwards and into the hands of the oncoming backs added to the gutsy and enthralling display that Japan treated the home faithful to.
Fumiaki Tanaka was key to Japan’s gameplan in the first half with his quick ball and pin-point delivery from the breakdown. He was at the breakdown fast and ensured that the ball was with the backs in lightening quick time to leave the England players chasing shadows. It came as a big surprise then that the experienced scrum half made way at the interval for the younger Yutaka Nagare. The replacement was clattered by the onrushing Mario Itoje less than five minutes into the second half after taking one too many steps at the ruck. It was that extra step Nagare took when picking up the ball at the breakdown that meant Japan were unable to find the same rhythm or play at the same tempo that they impressed with in the first 40 minutes. Tanaka, who had found himself drop down the pecking order under Jamie Joseph following Rugby World Cup 2015, may have just regained his spot as first-choice scrum half going into 2019.
The Blossoming Bromance
The centre combination of Timothy Lafaele and Ryoto Nakamura is developing into the most satisfying of bromances, not only due to their pre-match photos together on the Twickenham pitch. The duo are no stranger to one another having played alongside each other in the first half of the 2018 Super Rugby season for Sunwolves and appear to have reignited their partnership with some delightful interchanges of passes at times. It was no secret that Japan’s tactic lied with quick ball into the backs, underlined by both Lafaele and Nakamura enjoying 16 carries each, the most by any player on the Twickenham field. Nakamura was worthy of his try and in doing so made England fly-half George Ford look like a schoolboy. Both were resilient in defence, coming up as a line and picking their moments to savage the England backs. Indeed, Lafaele completed every tackle he attempted. Nakamura and Lafaele, complemented by full-back Will Tupou, who started alongside Lafaele against the All Blacks, will only benefit from playing together more in Super Rugby next season ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
Fukuoka, Yamada and Tupou
Kenki Fukuoka deserves his share of the plaudits too, not only for sharing his surname with his place of birth. He was the fastest player in a while to grace the Twickenham turf, turning on the gas on each occasion the ball reached his hands on the left wing. He regularly got Japan out of trouble on the rare occasions they found themselves pegged back inside their own half by latching onto a Lafaele kick or beating his man. The 26-year-old made a total of 132 metres over the gain line, the most by an opposing player at Twickenham in over two years – an indication of how influential the former Japan Sevens was in the match.
Yamada and Tupou also deserve a mention. The latter was deployed at full back by Joseph specifically to deal with the potential threat of high balls and was almost faultless in coping with that threat. Yamada, meanwhile, took his fair share of high balls and produced his characteristic magic feet that would not have been out of place at a dance revolution arcade machine.