Opinion – Last night’s game showed rugby is in good shape in the country that will host next year’s World Cup, writes Jamie Wall
Did anyone predict that by the end of the year Japan would score 31 points against the All Blacks? Or that no one would really mind too much because the 69 the All Blacks scored in return were far more important in terms of the long run.
It was a wildly entertaining game at Ajinomoto Stadium yesterday afternoon, not least because yet again the sun was shining and a big crowd showed up to support the home side. It showed that rugby is in good shape in the country that will host next year’s World Cup, and spurred the Japanese on to score the first try of the match.
They were decked out in a great deal of red and white, and made some serious noise whenever Japan got on a roll. If anyone from Ireland or Scotland was watching, they may want to take note of just how noisy a game against Japan can get – both of them will need to get past the hosts to make the quarter finals of the World Cup.
Japan ended up scoring five good tries all up, the first a bit fortuitous but well taken charge down by Samuela Anise. Then a barging run by Hendrik Tui, a blindside raid by Tim Lafaele, a stunning finish by Jamie Henry and then a slick one to finish by Lafaele again. They all deserve praise – five tries is equal to the most the All Blacks have conceded all year.
But that’s to be expected against a side that had barely a week’s preparation and eight new caps. This game could have gone either way: a dour slugfest in which the All Blacks built up a lead then strangled the Japanese will to live, or a crazy shootout in which they let the new boys let their hair down.
Thankfully, it was the latter.
Most thankful for that will be George Bridge, because he had one of the most memorable All Black debuts ever. Two tries, including one with his first touch of the ball, and not putting a foot wrong in the 40 minutes he was on the park. If Nehe Milner-Skudder was feeling sore when he came off with a shoulder injury at halftime, he’ll probably feel even more so if this is the performance that rockets Bridge past him on the All Black depth chart.
In fact, there’s probably a few nervous looks over the shoulder by the members of the main squad back three, too.
Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi dotted down in his first start, as did Matt Proctor. Dalton Papali’i was prominent in the first half, while Mitch Drummond and Brett Cameron had solid cameos. Tyrel Lomax and Gareth Evans were busy, even if Lomax didn’t get that many scrums to impress with.
It was also a timely return for Dane Coles, who may well force his way back into the team to play in the next fortnight. His set piece was accurate, some typical vigorous off-the-ball play was indulged in, and a try for good measure.
So, in all, a good result for everyone. The coaches got a look at the next crop of All Blacks, and had the luxury of having them in an environment that replicated the World Cup next year. They’ll come back next year to familiar surroundings, while all other teams bar the hosts will be getting used to just what it means to play in Japan with no trial period.
For Japanese rugby, their team did themselves proud. If anything can come out of this, it’s that the hosts will be a serious threat next year. In fact, if they play like this but defend a bit better they may well be coming up against the All Blacks in the quarters.