By Shinichi Saoshiro
TOKYO (Reuters) – Winger Kotaro Matsushima scored a hat-trick as Japan overcame a severe case of opening-night nerves to give the host nation a winning start to the Rugby World Cup with a 30-10 victory over a spirited Russia side on Friday.
After an opening ceremony featuring a dazzling laser light show and appearances by Japan’s Crown Prince Akishino and All Blacks great Richie McCaw, there were quickly a few fireworks on the pitch.
The Russians, laid on as sacrificial lambs for the opening party, stunned the noisy crowd of 48,745 into silence when they pounced on a Japanese error and scored the tournament’s first try through winger Kirill Golosnitskiy in the fourth minute.
Man of the Match Matsushima replied with Japan’s first try seven minutes later but it was not until he went over for his second just before the break that the error-prone home side took the lead at 12-7.
Flanker Pieter Labuschagne added another try after the break and 12 minutes from time Matsushima got his third to secure the bonus point that might be key to Japan’s hopes of advancing from Pool A, which also includes Ireland, Scotland and Samoa.
Russia, who only qualified when Romania and Spain were disqualified for using ineligible players, impressed with hard tackling and a willingness to take the game to their opponents.
The Bears also bullied Japan’s scrum on more than one occasion and troubled the hosts with their direct running, a tactic Japan’s other Pool A opponents Ireland, Scotland and Samoa will look to emulate but with greater efficiency.
The home side looked a different proposition when on the few occasions they managed to get the ball through hands out to the wings and South Africa-born Matsushima cashed in with the first World Cup hat-trick for a Japan player.
He could have had a fourth only for the TMO to adjudge that he had not grounded the ball properly but a further inflated scoreline would have been unfair on the Russians, who put their bodies on the line for the full 80 minutes.
Japan’s next game is against the number one ranked Irish in Fukuroi City on Sept 28, a match the hosts will be desperate to win if they wish to progress to the quarter-finals for the first time.
The Russians take on Samoa in Kumagaya on Sept 24.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney and Shinichi Saochiro, editing by Toby Davis)