Kotaro Matsushima scored a superb hat-trick as hosts Japan overcame a brief first-half scare to beat Russia 30-10 in the Rugby World Cup opener.
The home side made a sloppy start and consequently trailed to 20th-ranked Russia and Kirill Golosnitskiy’s converted try for much of the opening period in Tokyo.
But Matsushima, having already reduced the arrears, edged Japan in front just before the half-time whistle and set up a far more straightforward second period.
Pieter Labuschagne went alone for a powerful third try and then Matsushima secured a potentially precious bonus point, becoming the first Japanese player to score a World Cup treble.
A long way from the procession that would follow, the nervy Brave Blossoms had been punished inside five minutes as William Tupou completely misjudged Vasily Artemyev’s high kick and allowed Golosnitskiy to steal in for the opening try.
But the hosts kept their cool and responded in fine fashion, with Timothy Lafaele and Yutaka Nagare combining stylishly to open up space for Matsushima to dart through on the right.
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) September 20, 2019
It looked as though Russia might get to the break with a narrow lead still intact when Matsushima saw a second try struck off, having lost control of the ball as he lunged for the line under a tackle from Artemyev.
However, the Japan finisher made no mistake on the stroke of half-time, being found wide open to sprint in for a vital score.
Yu Tamura dispatched a simple penalty shortly after the restart to stretch Japan’s advantage, before a brutal Labuschagne try followed as he ripped the ball from Andrey Ostrikov and streaked clear.
A gutsy Russia display was rewarded with three points from the boot of Yury Kushnarev, but Tamura hit back with a penalty of his own and Matsushima slalomed through to wrap up victory after Artemyev gifted away a tired kick.
Fifth-minute fright for hosts
Japan kicked off their 2015 campaign with one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history when they downed South Africa, but it was they who had to fend off an upset this time. The pressure of playing as hosts appeared to get to them as they were penned in early on and, having escaped when one kick was charged down, Tupou’s fumble let Russia through.
Matsushima the man for Japan
Russia had opportunities on the counter-attack later in the first half, yet they lacked a man as clinical as Matsushima. The Sunwolves star repeatedly got himself into space on the right wing and his pace took him away from recovering opponents for a pair of crucial scores before the interval, adding gloss with a late third.
Key Opta Facts
3 – Kotaro Matsushima is the first player to score a hat-trick for Japan in a @rugbyworldcup match; overall he now has 4 RWC tries for Japan, the joint most for the nation (also Eiji Kutsuki). Blossoming. #RWC2019 pic.twitter.com/MyBHGIlrdx
— OptaJonny (@OptaJonny) September 20, 2019
– Japan have won four of their last five World Cup matches, this after winning just once in 24 previous games at the tournament (D2, L21).
– Golosnitskiy’s fifth-minute try for Russia was the quickest in a World Cup opener, beating Israel Dagg’s score in the 11th minute for New Zealand against Tonga in 2011.
– Matsushima crossed for a hat-trick, the first Japan player to manage that in a World Cup game; he has now scored nine tries in his last seven games for the Brave Blossoms.
– Luke Thompson (38 years, 157 days) became the sixth-oldest player in World Cup history when he came on as a replacement – he is the oldest player at this year’s tournament and the oldest to represent Japan in any Test match.
Having successfully negotiated this potential banana skin, Japan have a week off before returning to their traditional role as underdogs for a highly anticipated clash with Ireland. Russia face Samoa next.
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