Japan became the first team to win three games at a World Cup and exit at the pool stages after their 28-18 win over USA in Gloucester.
Nothing has epitomised the 2015 Rugby World Cup quite like the performances of the emerging nations and it was fitting that a packed house at Kingsholm saw Japan, the heroes of the first weekend of the tournament, see off the challenge of a muscular USA side in a game polarised by the power of the States versus the technical excellence of their opponents.
The USA offered an heroic and committed performance, and the scoreline was a fair reflection of the match and ability of both teams.
Rugby is the USA’s fastest growing team sport and their exposure and efforts in 2015 will of course resonate and assist with the momentum of their game, despite being forced to re-qualify next time around.
However, there’s been many journeys in this World Cup, but none enjoyed or embraced quite as much by the collective rugby world as that of Japan.
It is criminal that after winning three pool matches that they are out of the World Cup, but they leave to host the 2019 tournament with their heads held high, their reputation enhanced and with the respect of the entire rugby world.
An early penalty AJ MacGinty after four minutes gave the USA the first blow, but Japan were quick to reply and after six minutes their first try came to rapturous applause, inspired by a brilliant kick and chase by fly-half Kosei Ono with two quick phases seeing backs and forwards combine to send flyer Kotaro Matsushima over on the left wing.
However, the USA are a side of immense power and strength, and the reply saw skipper Samu Manoa and his forwards battering the try line with multi phase rucks and rolling mauls, followed by MacGinty hoisting a kick cross field to send Takudzwa Ngwenya sprinting over in the right hand corner.
Japan took no time at all to offer their response, as USA lock Hayden Smith fumbled a restart, allowing Japan to re-gather and played the Americans at their own game, as Michael Leitch and his men mauled and drove their way to the line, with wing Fujita detached and crashing right through the middle of the maul to score.
A Ayumu Goromaru penalty after 33 minutes saw the veteran full back become the first Japanese player to reach a landmark of 700 test points and the USA, although threatening the Japanese line towards the end of the first half, couldn’t muster the finish nor could they quite cope with the excellence and height of the Japanese scrummage, allowing the Brace Blossoms a lead of 17-8 at half time.
After another early Goromaru penalty in the second half, the USA mounted ten minutes of sustained pressure into the Japanese 22 but their over-commitment to numbers at ruck time, combined with the Japanese discipline at the contact area allowed them no space to capitalise on the possession and territory they had despite a ruck transgression allowing MacGinty to add another penalty.
With USA prop Eric Fry sent to the sinbin on 60 mins for kicking the ball when offside at a ruck, the ensuing lineout saw Japan set up an express maul, and one of the stars of the tournament, Amanaki Mafi barrelled over the tryline much to the delight of the packed Kingsholm shed.
The resilience of all the lower tier teams has been a credit to each and every one of them and it was no surprise that the USA replied with a period of sustained power and counter rucking to send Saracens’ favourite import, skipper Chris Wyles an open run over in the corner.
With Goromaru adding another penalty in the dying moments, in the final analysis, Japan had just that little bit more composure than the USA and that was telling in getting them home.
Man of the match: Both Japanese number eights, Holani and Mafi were outstanding, but an assured display from veteran full-back Ayumu Goromaru takes the award.
Moment of the match: Japan’s line-out leading to the Mafi try was a picture of precision rugby; ball to middle, receivers peeling off through the front gap summed up their technical excellence and brilliant execution throughout the Rugby World Cup, but we will go to the absolute standing ovation offered to both sides by Kingsholm and its infamous shed; a fitting tribute to both teams.
Villain of the match: In a game without a single TMO referral and played in good spirit there was no nasty stuff to report.
Tries: Matsushima, Fujita, Mafi
Cons: Goromaru 2
Pens: Goromaru 3
Tries: Ngwenya, Wyles
Pens: MacGinty 2
Yellow Card: Fry
USA: 15 Chris Wyles (c), 14 Takudzwa Ngwenya, 13 Seamus Kelly, 12 Thretton Palamo, 11 Zach Test, 10 AJ MacGinty, 9 Mike Petri, 8 Samu Manoa, 7 Andrew Durutalo, 6 Al McFarland, 5 Greg Peterson, 4 Hayden Smith, 3 Titi Lamositele, 2 Zach Fenoglio, 1 Eric Fry.
Replacements: 16 Phil Thiel, 17 Oli Kilifi, 18 Chris Baumann, 19 Cam Dolan, 20 John Quill, 21 Danny Barrett, 22 Niku Kruger, 23 Folau Niua.
Japan: 15 Ayumu Goromaru, 14 Yoshikazu Fujita, 13 Harumichi Tatekawa, 12 Craig Wing, 11 Kotaro Matsushima, 10 Kosei Ono, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Ryu Koliniasi Holani, 7 Michael Broadhurst, 6 Michael Leitch (c), 5 Justin Ives, 4 Luke Thompson, 3 Hiroshi Yamashita, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Keita Inagaki.
Replacements: 16 Takeshi Kizu, 17 Masataka Mikami, 18 Kensuke Hatakeyama, 19 Shinya Makabe, 20 Amanaki Lelei Mafi, 21 Hendrik Tui, 22 Atsushi Hiwasa, 23 Karne Hesketh.
Venue: Kingsholm, Gloucester
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: John Lacey (Ireland), Federico Anselmi (Argentina)
Television match official: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)
By James While at Kingsholm