Kotaro Matsushima yesterday scored a sizzling hat-trick as hosts Japan recovered from a torrid start to beat Russia 30-10 in their Rugby World Cup opener.
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 more than 10 minutes left in Tokyo.
The Brave Blossoms looked to have caught stage fright in their 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 kickoff they put us under extreme pressure with their game plan, they really tested us today,” Japan captain Michael Leitch said. “I think with the nerves out of the way, we can start looking forward to [the next game against] Ireland.”
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.
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.
However, with Russia wilting as halftime approached, Japan caught their opponents cold.
Sucking Russia’s defenders in on the left, Japan switched back the other way and Ryoto Nakamura found Matsushima out wide to give the hosts the lead.
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 made it 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 Russia 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 hosts, who produced one of sport’s greatest 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 top-ranked Ireland in Shizuoka next weekend, while the Bears try to lick their wounds before facing Samoa after a quick, four-day turnaround.
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