TOYOTA, Japan — Japan is a step closer to Rugby World Cup history after overcoming a ferocious Samoa challenge 38-19 with an immense effort of its own. The tournament hosts claimed a possibly crucial bonus point four minutes into additional time in a nerve-shredder on Saturday.
Japan now has won three out of three games in Pool A and has only Scotland between it and a first place in the quarterfinals for an Asian team. That would set off a party of epic proportions in Japan.
It should be noted that Japan won three pool games at the last Rugby World Cup and still missed out on the quarterfinals — to Scotland.
That last pool game will be enormous. Japan leads Pool A with 14 points, three clear of Ireland. Scotland has two games remaining and is on five points. Samoa and Russia are already out of contention.
Japan scored its first three tries against Samoa through center Timothy Lafaele, No. 8 Kazuki Himeno and replacement Kenki Fukuoka, the star in the shocking win over Ireland. His try sealed victory against Samoa with five minutes to go.
But star winger Kotaro Matsushima’s bonus-point score in the last play of the game — and four minutes after the clocked went to 80 minutes — could be the most crucial in the final reckoning.
Samoa tested Japan’s nerve and commitment at every stage and home team met the challenge at a raucous City of Toyota Stadium.
Japan made Samoa pay for a yellow card to flanker TJ Ioane when Lafaele scored near the left corner in the first half. Himeno grounded in a Japanese rolling maul early in the second.
Samoa set up a thrilling finish when center Henry Taefu spun out of a tackle and went over after a period of Samoan pressure. He converted for 26-19 with seven minutes to go.
Japanese nerves were jangling among the near 40,000 in the stands — the biggest crowd in the City of Toyota Stadium so far at the World Cup.
Japan responded by turning over possession from the restart, surging to within a meter, and then sending Fukuoka in from an overlap way out on the right corner for the game-clincher.
Matsushima’s try might be the quarterfinal-clincher and came after Japan gave up possession and Samoa had a scrum on its own five-yard line. Japan summoned one more thrust from its outstanding forwards and won possession back with a free kick. Japan scrummed again, and eventually moved the ball left to the short side, where Matsushima slipped through a half gap and had enough momentum to go over.
The roar might have taken the roof off the City of Toyota Stadium if it had been closed.