Kotaro Matsushima scored a sizzling hat-trick as hosts Japan recovered from a torrid start to beat Russia 30-10 in their Rugby World Cup opener on Friday.
Japan’s prolific winger became the first player to score three tries in a World Cup opening game after a brilliant solo effort with just over 10 minutes left in Tokyo.
The Brave Blossoms looked to have caught stage fright in the Pool A clash and found themselves behind after just five minutes before Matsushima came to the rescue by scoring three of Japan’s four tries.
“Straight from the kick-off they put us under extreme pressure with their gameplan, they really tested us today,” said Japan captain Michael Leitch.
“I think with the nerves out of the way, we can start looking forward to (their next game against) Ireland,” he added.
Japan strode out to booming taiko drums greeted by a deafening roar from a packed crowd of 45,000 but it was Russia’s “Bears” who began the sharper.
Yu Tamura’s charged-down kick had almost led to a score before William Tupou spilled a high catch, allowing Kirill Golosnitskiy the simplest of tries.
Tupou made amends in the 11th minute with a deft reverse pass for Matsushima to dive into the corner.
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Russia came back again when Nikita Vavilin broke clear, only for Vladimir Ostroushko to wastefully kick the ball away.
A chip-through from Yury Kushnarev triggered further panic as Golosnitskiy again threatened.
But with the Russians wilting as half-time approached, Japan caught their opponents cold.
Sucking the Russian defenders in on the left, Japan switched back the other way and Ryoto Nakamura found Matsushima out wide to give the home side the lead.
– ‘Unforced errors’ –
Leading 12-7 at the half, Tamura extended Japan’s advantage with an early penalty before Pieter Labuschagne ripped the ball from his opposite number and raced clear to score Japan’s third try.
A Kushnarev penalty closed the deficit to 20-10 on the hour-mark but Tamura kicked a three-pointer before Matsushima completed a superb hat-trick with a mazy run that left a trail of Russian defenders for dead.
Japan were once destroyed 145-17 by New Zealand at the World Cup but they are a different proposition these days and have become a regular fixture among rugby’s top 10-ranked teams since winning three games at the 2015 World Cup under Eddie Jones.
The home side, who produced one of sport’s great upsets with a jaw-dropping 34-32 defeat of South Africa in their opening game four years ago, never looked like relinquishing control after Matsushima settled their nerves.
Japan, who earned a bonus point for scoring four tries, face Ireland — the world’s top-ranked side — in Shizuoka next weekend while the Bears try to lick their wounds before taking on Samoa after a quick, four-day turnaround.
Coach Jamie Joseph admitted that the occasion had got to his players in their off-key start.
“I think the game showed that the boys were nervous. As I said before the game, there was a lot of expectation on the guys. I thought we had prepared well for that but it’s not until you get out there that you realise how much pressure there is on the guys,” said Joseph.
“I’m proud of the way we came through it in the end. We made a lot of unforced errors and our kicking game was pretty poor tonight so we’re going to have to fix that quickly.
“But you really have to take your hat off to the Russia guys. They put us under a lot of pressure.”