It was a hugely inexperienced Wales team that took on a well drilled and disciplined Japan in Osaka in hot conditions. With so many players called up to the Lions tour and some senior players rested, it fell to Bradley Davies and Dan Biggar to lead the team with their experience against their Japanese opposition.
There were four new caps in this Wales side, the most surprising coming in the form of Dafydd Howells who has only a handful of senior rugby starts to his name. It was a decent start from Wales, but after a kick at goal had been turned down and the resulting kick to touch going dead, Japan began to gain dominance.
Time and again errors were forced from Wales as Japan’s runners, especially their number 8 and captain Takashi Kikutani, making good inroads. With quick pop passing and speedy supporting runners, Japan pushed Wales hard. The pressure soon told on Wales’ discipline as a string of penalties was conceded in and around their 22. Already leading 3-0, the penalty that gifted Japan a 6-0 lead also saw Rob McCusker sent to the sin bin for obstruction.
While down to 14 men, Wales played a more conservative game, and keeping the ball close to their forwards managed to make some inroads into Japan’s defensive line, and their own chances of points came and they soon levelled the scores. There was a moment of drama where one of Dan Biggar’s penalty attempts was adjudged to have missed, adamant it had gone over it was with amazement the players were told there was no television replay in this game for the referee to check.
As the game progressed it was clear it was the breakdown where Japan truly had the upper hand, with Wales’ option of not picking an open side hurting them. As the clock edged nearer to half time, Japan again found themselves deep in Wales’ 22. From a lineout, Japan started a fierce rolling maul that collapsed over the line. Again the lack of video technology came back to hurt the players as the referee had no chance to check whether the try had been scored or not.
Having penalised Wales for sledging, Japan opted for another lineout. As Wales’ defence rushed forward to counter the maul, a neat pop pass saw Japan’s open side Michael Broadhurst peel over to the blind side to cross over unopposed. The conversion missed yet Japan had done enough to go in to the break as deserved 11-6 leaders.
The second half saw Wales cut down on their errors, though their protection of the ball at the breakdown was still a large area of concern. Winger Robinson and full back Williams linked up well as they made inroads in and around Japan’s defence. It was the Japanese discipline that started to falter and fly half Dan Biggar was quick to slot the points over, quickly doing enough to put Wales into the lead for the first time in the match.
Wales continued to stutter in attack until a move started by Dan Biggar finally set their game alight. He set free Liam Williams who broke through a tackle to put in a delightful back handed pass to new cap hooker Emyr Phillips who then passed to send Harry Robinson over to score. Biggar converted.
It seemed that Wales had now done enough to pull away from Japan, and the coaching staff started to unload the bench. Rhys Patchell replaced Dan Biggar at fly half to earn his first cap and as Japan started to fight their way back in both territory and possession there was a worry that an error had been made in taking off one of Wales’ only experienced players left.
Japan took advantage of their new found momentum and with good lines and quick passing Fujita crossed for a well worked try. Goramaru converted to bring the scores to 18-19, leaving Wales with a very anxious last ten minutes to play.
To the young team’s credit they re-gathered and replacement scrum half Tavis Knoyle did well to dictate play. A chance of points came again as Japanese indiscipline told and Patchell stepped up calmly to slot the three points to give Wales a small amount of breathing space.
Japan tried to the end but as the clock ran red and time was finally up, they could only be left to rue their own missed kicks early on in the second half as they finished up narrow losers against a very disjointed Welsh team.
Wales will be pleased that they managed to see out the win and with how their set piece functioned. Some bright performances in Gill, Andrews, Bradley Davies, Biggar, Robinson and Liam Williams gives them a strong platform to build from yet their lack of competitiveness at the breakdown will cause McBryde problems. Defensively passive in some areas also and with limited options in attack, there is no doubt there is a lot for them to build on for their match in Tokyo.
Full time score: Japan 18 – 22 Wales
Wales: Liam Williams (Scarlets); Harry Robinson (Blues), Owen Williams (Blues), Jonathan Spratt (Ospreys), Dafydd Howells (Ospreys); Dan Bigger (Ospreys), Lloyd Williams (Blues); Ryan Bevington (Ospreys), Emyr Phillips (Scarlets), Scott Andrews (Blues), Bradley Davies (capt, Blues), Lou Reed (Blues), Andrew Coombs (Dragons), James King (Ospreys), Rob McCusker (Scarlets).
Replacements: Scott Baldwin (Ospreys), Rhys Gill (Saracens), Rhodri Jones (Scarlets), Andries Pretorius (Blues), Dan Baker (Ospreys), Tavis Knoyle (Scarlets), Rhys Patchell (Blues), Tom Prydie (Dragons)
Japan: Ayumu Goromaru, Yoshikazu Fujita, Male Sau, Craig Wing, Kenki Fukuoka, Harumichi Tatekawa, Fumiaki Tanaka; Masataka Mikami, Shota Horie, Hiroshi Yamashita, Hitoshi Ono, Shoji Ito, Hendrik Tui, Michael Broadhurst, Takashi Kikutani (capt).
Replacements: Takeshi Itu, Yusuke Nagae, Kensuke Hatakeyama, Toshizumi Kitagawa, Ryuta Yasui, Atsushi Hiwasa, Yu Tamura, Hirotoki Onozawa.