Japan off to flying start after Russians strike first blow

Matsushima scores hat-trick of tries as hosts recover from shock of conceding early try.

TOKYO, 20 Sep – Jet-heeled winger Kotaro Matsushima scored three tries - and had a fourth ruled out by the television match official - as Japan secured a bonus-point victory in the opening match of RWC 2019.

Asia's first Rugby World Cup began in sensational style, but not in the way hoped by home supporters who were in their seats up to three hours before kick off.

Russia, rank outsiders in Pool A, were ahead inside five minutes with a gift of a try for Kirill Golosnitskiy, thanks to nervy spill of a routine catch from full-back William Tupou. Winger Golosnitskiy gathered just inside the 22 and scored easily. It was the fastest try in the opening match of a Rugby World Cup. Yury Kushnarev made it 7-0 with the conversion. 

Japan roared back and scored in the 12th minute, a lovely no-look pass out of the back of his hand by Timothy Lafaele creating an overlap for Kotaro Matsushima. The conversion was missed.

The Russians continued to pierce the home defence at regular intervals but could not extend their narrow advantage. Indeed, a heroic tackle from full-back Valery Morozov prevented Matsushima scoring again in the right corner - but only after the TMO ruled that he failed to ground the ball. 

Matsushima was not to be denied, however, and he scored under the posts in the 38th minutes from Ryoto Nakamura's pass. Yu Tamura converted, to give Japan a 12-10 lead at the break.

An early penalty from Tamura, who had an indifferent night with the boot, settled any lingering Japanese nerves and the match tilted firmly in their favour when openside flanker Pieter Labuschagne ripped the ball and cantered some 40 yards to score. 

That made it 20-7, before a Kushnarev penalty cut the deficit to 10 points with 20 minutes left. However, the next score was a long-range penalty from Tamura: 23-10.

Russia were tiring visibly and they were no match for Matsushima, who sprinted in for a third time. Replacement Rikiya Matsuda converted to round off a satisfactory start for Jamie Joseph's team.

Joseph was pleased with an improved defensive performance in the second half after such a shaky start. "The game showed the boys were nervous," he said, "but I am proud of the way they came through it in the end.

"We made a lot of unforced errors. Our kicking game was pretty poor tonight so we'll have to fix that up quickly, but you take your hat off to the Russian guys - they put us under a lot of pressure. You’ve got to congratulate them."

Man of the match Matsushima was understandably elated: "It is my first three tries as a Japanese player," he said. "We were able to connect with each other and the roar of the fans became our driving force."

Lyn Jones, the Russia coach, praised his side's efforts. "We picked the fittest, fastest team we could tonight to put up with the speed of the Japanese boys and we did OK," he said.