Fleet-footed “Ferrari” Kotaro Matsushima showed his class as he emerged from the shadow of fellow wing Lomano Lemeki to score a crucial late try against Samoa and put Japan in control of Rugby World Cup Pool A on Saturday.
Matsushima has roared to prominence at this tournament after scoring a blistering hat-trick in Japan’s tournament-opening win over Russia, making him a marked man in a tight pool.
The 26-year-old, born in South Africa to a Zimbabwean mother and Japanese father, then threatened Ireland every time he had the ball in Japan’s thrilling 19-12 upset victory over the European giants in their second game.
He more than contained the imposing figure of Jacob Stockdale in that match and, against a physical Samoan side, showed glimpses of both attack and defence before his try secured a bonus-point 38-19 victory in Toyota.
The partisan crowd, almost to a man, woman and child decked out in the hooped red and white of Japan, rose to their feet in expectation every time Matsushima got the ball.
The winger made one scintillating break on the quarter-hour mark, searing through a gap and sprinting clear before being clawed down by Samoan hooker Seilala Lam.
But it was left winger Lemeki who was used more early on, often on an inside crash ball off set pieces, and also for kick returns.
Matsushima, described by Japan coach Jamie Joseph as a “Ferrari” after the Russia victory, was left largely as a bystander for much of the first period, with half-backs Yutaka Nagare and Yu Tamura both guilty of kicking too much possession away.
Lemeki botched what would have been Japan’s opening try, running straight at Henry Taefu in defence rather than stepping back towards the posts or looking for a pass to the supporting runner who was screaming inside him.
– ‘Tough, but we’re ready’ –
Matsushima also had a chance to showcase his defensive qualities, putting in a bone-cracking tackle to snuff out a promising Samoan attack after Kane Le’aupepe had surged upfield from a restart.
The winger then moved into more of a roving full-back position as Lemeki, New Zealand-born but of Tongan heritage, deservedly went on to pick up the man-of-the-match award for his powerful ball-in-hand contribution.
“Samoa are a very, very physical team,” said Lemeki. “After the results from last week, we knew they had to win, but we were up for the challenge and it was a tough one.”
Lemeki said interchanging amongst the backs was key when playing in Joseph’s multi-cultural team.
“You’ve got to play a lot of roles,” he said, with he and Matsushima swapping roles at will in the second-half. “The legs are feeling a bit sore at the moment.”
Matsushima had the last word, however, when he produced a sharp step inside centre Alapati Leiua and rode the tackle of Pete Cowley for Japan’s fourth try deep in extra-time.
“Once Matsushima crossed that line everyone was delighted!” beamed Japan’s South African-born skipper Pieter Labuschagne.
“It was the 85th minute and everyone was full of joy once he’d crossed the line.”
That fourth try handed the hosts an invaluable bonus point, meaning they control the pool ahead of the three remaining matches.
Scotland are first up, taking on Russia on Wednesday, before Ireland play Samoa on Saturday and the Brave Blossoms round off their group stage against the Scots — on a short turnaround — in Yokohama on October 13.
Scotland, Lemeki said, “is definitely going to be tough, but we’re ready”.