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Japan fight off staunch Sunwolves effort in British and Irish Lions warm-up clash

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Clive Rose - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

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In their first match since their famous run to the 2019 World Cup quarter-finals, Japan overcame a staunch Sunwolves side in Shizuoka on Saturday.

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Running out 32-17 victors at Ecopa Stadium, the venue where the Brave Blossoms defeated Ireland two years ago, Jamie Joseph’s side were forced to work hard for their win over the exiled Super Rugby franchise.

Reorganised to help prepare the national side for their historic tour of Europe where they will face the British and Irish Lions and Ireland in the coming weeks, the Sunwolves proved to be no slouch as they took a 14-3 lead into the half-time break.

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Dominating at the breakdown throughout the opening 50 minutes of the match, tries to halfback Kouki Arai and wing Koki Takeyama pushed the Sunwolves out to an unlikely lead over Japan, whose only points came via the boot of first-five Yu Tamura.

The Sunwolves, largely comprised of fringe Japanese national squad players and Top League stars, weren’t afraid to play an attacking brand of rugby, which Joseph’s side struggled to cope with until they kicked into gear shortly after half-time.

A rolling maul try by reserve hooker Kosuke Horikoshi brought the national side back into the match in the 60th minute, while second-five Ryoto Nakamura dove between two players to dot down for Japan’s second try five minutes later.

The added extras from the boot of reserve utility back Rikiya Matsuda edged Japan into a 17-14 lead before further tries to Horikoshi and reserve loose forward Tevita Tatafu in the final 10 minutes put the result out of reach for the Sunwolves.

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Although Japan came away with the victory, much work will need to be done before the Brave Blossoms take on the Lions in Edinburgh in a fortnight considering the majority of their points came in the final quarter of their game.

Credit has to be given where it is due, though, and plenty must be handed to the Sunwolves, who showed plenty of grit and determination in their first match since they were controversially axed from Super Rugby last year.

Despite their opponents’ unexpected dominance, Japan captain Michael Leitch said the match served his side well ahead of their first-ever clash against the Lions.

“They played Sunwolves-style rugby, and it felt like we were under pressure for the entire 80 minutes,” Leitch said, as per Kyodo News.

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“In order to play our style of rugby, we need to take care of business at the breakdown, so today was a good lesson for us and gives us some things to work on that will help in our preparations.”

The match also gave Joseph the chance to blood a few new players, with South African-born former Sunwolves wing Gerhard van den Heever the only debutant named in Japan’s starting XV.

A further five debutants – New Zealand-born prop Craig Millar, Australian-born flanker Jack Cornelsen, Suntory Sungoliath halfback Naoto Saito, South African-born midfielder Shane Gates and Tongan-born wing Siosaia Fifita – came off the bench for Japan.

The Brave Blossoms will travel to Edinburgh on Wednesday ahead of their match against the Lions at Murrayfield next Saturday.

Joseph’s side will then round out their mid-year test schedule against Ireland in a World Cup re-match at Aviva Stadium in Dublin on July 3.

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Japan fight off staunch Sunwolves effort in British and Irish Lions warm-up clash

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