WHANGAREI, New Zealand (AP)—Having only won once in 20 matches in 20 years coming into the World Cup, Japan’s aim to win twice at the 2011 tournament was ambitious in a pool containing New Zealand and France.
Two losses into the event extended that undesirable run further but coach John Kirwan had always targeted Tonga as a winnable match to end Japan’s other dubious World Cup record, failing to win a game in 16 attempts.
Tonga extended that mark by another match Wednesday, dominating at the scrum and breakdown to run out 31-18 victors at Northland Events Centre and keep alive its bid to reach the quarterfinals despite also having lost its opening two games.
“The Tongans, especially in the first half, lived off our mistakes and punished us for those,” Kirwan said. “In the second half, we had an opportunity to get back into the game and we missed that opportunity with the maul down near the left-hand side.
“We probably had more possession and played more rugby, but rugby at this level is about the ruck. That was the critical thing tonight: rucks.”
Tonga won nine turnovers at the breakdown compared to zero for Japan, allowing Viliami Ma’afu, Tukulua Lokotui and Fetu’u Vainikolo to score tries and for flyhalf Kurt Morath to land six kicks from seven attempts and total of 16 points.
Japan captain Takashi Kikutani said his team’s plan to fan out in defense around the breakdown proved costly.
“We tried to have good ball presentation and leg drive and to hit low to win the ruck; we tried to not send many players into rucks,” he said. “But Tonga had many strengths in the ruck and a mismatch happened.”
Japan also scored three tries, through Kensuke Hatakeyama, Michael Leitch and Alisi Tupuailai, but a dismal all-around performance from flyhalf James Arlidge in failing to land one conversion and also spending time in the sinbin wrecked the team’s chances.
But Tonga could only win half its lineout ball and were forced to make 50 more tackles, giving Japan ample opportunity to build pressure.
“I thought when we held onto the ball and put some multi-phases together, we created try-scoring opportunities,” Kirwan said. “For us, it’s important to hold onto the ball so we can run the bigger packs around. Too many errors and not protecting the ball at the ruck cost us dearly. We need to fix that for Canada, otherwise the same thing will happen.”
Even Tonga coach Isitolo Maka was surprised by Japan’s lack of aggression at the ruck.
“I was expecting a lot more confrontation at the breakdown by the Japanese,” he said. “They were so quick to the breakdown, but I didn’t see that tonight.”
Japan meets Canada in Napier next Tuesday but has only an outside chance of finishing third in the pool and earning an automatic spot at the 2015 World Cup, the last edition before it hosts the tournament four years later.
“Japan hasn’t won a game for 20 years,” Kirwan said, referring to the 52-8 victory over Zimbabwe in 1991. “So we wanted to win two games to automatically qualify, and it makes the last game very, very important to win a game.”