YOKOHAMA, 13 Oct - Japan reached the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals for the first time with a sensational first victory over Scotland at a roaring International Stadium Yokohama.
The hosts will play South Africa in the last eight next Sunday in Tokyo. If they repeat the breathtaking pace and skill they showed here, a sequel to the Brighton Miracle of 2015 does not look beyond them.
“We are not going out next week to have a good game and lose,” insisted captain Michael Leitch. “We are coming out to win.”
Japan’s victory put them top of Pool A with four wins out of four, consigning Ireland - who finished second - to a quarter-final against New Zealand next Saturday, also in Tokyo.
Scotland, meanwhile, suffered a pool-stage exit for only the second time in nine World Cups.
“We came here with high aspirations and getting out of the pool was stage one of that,” said head coach Gregor Townsend. “It is obviously very disappointing to not make it out of the pool.”
With the match given the green light only nine hours before kick-off after the devastation caused by Typhoon Hagibis, the hosts made light of the uncertainty to seize the day in style, to the delight of the majority of a raucous 72,000 crowd.
Coach Jamie Joseph later revealed his side had taken inspiration from speaking about the typhoon and the impact it has had on the whole of Japan.
“We all feel the support behind our team and it is an incredible motivation,” he said.
They had to come from behind after Scotland took an early lead with a Finn Russell try, but scores from Kotaro Matsushima, Keita Inagaki and Kenki Fukuoka helped Japan into a commanding 21-7 half-time lead.
The outcome appeared to have been settled two minutes after the resumption when Player of the Match Fukuoka ripped the ball out of the grasp of Chris Harris and sprinted gleefully over before celebrating with team-mates.
Scotland did launch a comeback with tries from props Willem Nel and Zander Fagerson, but with Japan already earning a four-try bonus point and the Scots needing an eight-point winning margin and a bonus point themselves, the task proved beyond them.
The game began at breakneck pace and four times in the opening 12 minutes Japan steamed towards the Scottish 22 but failed to come away with points. Twice Scotland won penalties at the breakdown, before Jamie Ritchie earned the first of two vital turnovers in quick succession.
Scotland, by contrast, took full advantage of their one first-half opportunity after six minutes. A clever cross-kick from Russell found Darcy Graham on the right flank. Japan resisted the initial surge, but Russell stepped inside Japan scrum-half Yutuka Nagare to race in under the sticks, Greig Laidlaw adding the conversion.
Yu Tamura was just short with a long-range penalty but Japan were on the board soon enough. Timothy Lafaele escaped down the left flank and released Fukuoka, and the winger’s pop-pass found the supporting Matsushima, who raced home to set the stadium alight.
Tamura added the conversion to level it at 7-7 and Japan soon had their second score.
Offloads from Shota Horie, James Moore and William Tupou in a sensational move led to prop Leita Inagaki plunging over, Tamura adding the extras.
Tamura missed a second penalty a minute before the interval after Scotland were pinged at another scrum, but Japan still had time to extend their lead as the Scots failed to secure the restart.
A delicate chip from Lafaele bounced up for Fukuoka to collect and sprint over, and Tamura's superb touchline conversion left Scotland staring down the barrel at 21-7 down.
Fukuoka’s second try two minutes into the second half secured a bonus point, before Scotland rallied.
Sam Johnson’s burst appeared to have been wasted when Ritchie escaped but did not spot Stuart Hogg on his outside. But moments later Nel barrelled his way over from close range, Laidlaw converting.
Townsend sent on six replacements in the 52nd minute and one of them, Fagerson, plunged over within three minutes after Jonny Gray’s charge and offload. Russell – taking over the kicking duties from the departed Laidlaw – converted to reduce the deficit to seven points.
Scotland, throwing caution to the wind, thought they had another try, but replacement Peter Horne’s pass to Harris was forward.
With a minute remaining and Scotland still attacking, Japan won a vital turnover and wound down the clock to clinch a rapturously received victory.
This sporting fairytale may have more mileage in it yet.