Tonga delivered a physical performance to secure a 31-18 win over Japan in Whangarei.
In terms of structured play, Japan looked better on attack. But when it came to raw physicality, Tonga were always going to be superior and it proved to be the main difference on attack and defence between the two teams on the day.
With a 49kg advantage in the forwards battle, Tonga ruled the rucks and breakdowns as they overturned possession nine times while Japan failed to do so. They made 112 tackles and pressured Japan into numerous errors. Flyhalf Kurt Morath’s boot was also crucial in the win, as he slotted two conversions and four penalties from seven attempts. Japan’s goal kicking was poor as they only converted one from four attempts.
Tonga suffered a shock 25-20 defeat to Canada a week ago, which was their second successive loss in the tournament and it saw them drop three places in the IRB rankings from 12th to 15th spot. It was a major confidence blow for the Pacific Islanders, but they came out an inspired bunch against Japan – who have won seven of the 12 clashes between the two teams.
Tonga held most of the ascendancy in the first half, and they were on the front foot from the opening play of the game. After an early spill from the Brave Blossoms, Tonga spent the first eight minutes in Japan’s red zone and went on to score the first try of the match through No 8 Viliami Ma’afu.
The match become a free-flowing spectacle, and three tries were scored in quick succession as Japan hit back through tighthead prop Kensuke Hatakeyama and flanker Michael Leitch while Tonga remained ahead with lock Tukulua Lokotui’s try.
Japan were down to 14 men when flyhalf James Arlidge was harshly yellow carded for being offside, but Tonga could only score a Morath penalty in his absence for a 18-13 half-time lead.
Both teams scored a try apiece in the second half, but it was Morath’s boot that sealed the win. The Kiwi-born flyhalf kicked eight points, with his goals ensuring a comfortable buffer on the scoreboard throughout the stanza. Despite Tonga receiving two yellow cards in the final quarter with replacement prop Halani Aulika and Lokotui sent off, Japan couldn’t capitalise and the former held on for a well-deserved win.
By Gareth Duncan