TOULOUSE, France (AP) — Japan teamwork trumped Samoa individual power and won their Rugby World Cup match by a 28-22 scoreline that was more comfortable than it looked on Thursday.
With Argentina expected to earn a bonus-point win against Chile on Saturday, Japan's last Pool D match with the Pumas next week will be a winner-takes-all fight for a quarterfinal spot.
“That's our grand final,” Japan coach Jamie Joseph said. “All the guys are going to be really excited for that.”
Samoa's bid for a first quarterfinal since 1995 was terminated, and its second straight defeat advanced unbeaten pool leader England to the quarterfinals with a game to spare.
The Japanese reached the quarters for the first time at their home World Cup in 2019 but their form and results this year suggested they were way off the pace to challenge again. But they were patient and smart and disciplined at Stadium de Toulouse, and Samoa was not.
Japan's defense also made 184 tackles, more than twice as many as Samoa, to thwart waves of blue-shirt attacks.
A late converted try gave Samoa 90-odd seconds to pull off a miracle comeback. It forced a lineout on halfway but the throw-in was stolen — the only lineout Samoa lost all night — and Japan beat Samoa for a third Rugby World Cup in a row.
“The effort was there, the basics of the game I thought let us down,” stand-in Samoa captain Fritz Lee said. “Japan were more clinical than us and we had to respect the ball more than we did. Our penalty count did not help us.”
Fullback Lomano Lemeki, playing after the tournament-ending injury to Semisi Masirewa, highlighted his first test start in nearly two years with breaks that led to Japan's first two tries for ageless back-rowers Pieter Labuschagne and Michael Leitch.
“It is pretty unbelievable (to be here),” Lemeki said after his man-of-the-match performance. “I thought (my test career) was long gone but I got the call-up after the season and half a chance is better than no chance, so I just ran with it and here I am again.”
They led 17-3 until Shota Horie's yellow card canceled a yellow to Samoa's Jonathan Taumateine, and Samoa drove hooker Seilala Lam over the line just before halftime.
Samoa's second yellow card in the 47th cost it dearly. Winger Ben Lam, in only his second test, shoulder-tackled Labuschagne in the head.
Before the card was upgraded to red by the bunker, Japan turned the penalty into a corner lineout and mauled captain Kazuki Himeno for a third try.
Rikiya Matsuda, who embodies Japan's improvement in the tournament, couldn't convert from the sideline, missing his first goalkick after 13 successive shots across three pool matches. But then he made two more penalties for 25-8 and 28-15 to keep the scoreboard pressure on Samoa as it desperately and vainly rallied.
Samoa's cause wasn't helped by injuries. Captain and lock Chris Vui was a late withdrawal, then minutes into the match flanker Taleni Agaese Seu limped off. Late in the first half, inside back D'Angelo Leuila had to leave.
Leuila's exit put goalkicking duty back on flyhalf Christian Leali'ifano, who missed his first chance but converted the second and third tries in the last 15 minutes scored by Duncan Paia'aua and himself.
But it was too late for the Samoans after owning so much of the game; 93 rucks won to 58. But Samoa too often overplayed, running out of support and getting turned over.
Lam left Samoa short for the last half-hour and contributed to Samoa hurting itself more than Japan. It has England left next week to leave a mark.
AP Rugby World Cup: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby