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Japan Comeback Gives Georgia a Cold Shower Ahead of Samoa Clash

On a sun-soaked autumnal afternoon on November 12, Georgia let slip a nine-point advantage in the final twenty minutes to suffer a sobering 28-22 reverse at the hands of Japan.

A thrilling encounter played out in front of a capacity crowd at the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium, advertised both the quality of rugby among the game’s second tier nations today as well as some deficiencies.

The Japanese struggled to cope with Georgia’s forward power but the home side’s inability to make pressure count at key moments and, worse still, to concede tries from seemingly harmless situations, made this a frustrating afternoon in which defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory. In the words of one GRU official, this was a “cold shower”.

Japan, who leapfrogged Georgia in the world rankings in the wake of their victory, began brightly and opened the scoring in the 9th minute, taking advantage of the Georgian backs’ failure to clutch a high, bouncing ball.

Full-back Kotaro Matsushima pounced amid the panic to power over the Georgian line for the first try of the game, despite the best efforts of Georgian scrum-half Valeri Lobjanidze.

Japanese stand-off Yu Tamura, perhaps toiling against the howls of the home crowd, missed an elementary conversion meaning that Georgia trailed by only five points.

Tamura would make amends soon after, scoring from 40 meters with a 16th minute penalty to increase the Georgian arrears to eight.

It had been a sluggish first quarter of the game for the hosts but they sprang to life in the 26th minute as Giorgi Nemsadze leapt to grasp a lineout near the Japanese line, and the Georgian pack bulldozed its way to visitors’ line with flanker Viktor Kolelishvili notching their first try of the game.

Merab Kvirikashvili spurned the resulting conversion but Georgia were now in the ascendancy and would take a deserved lead before half-time.

A sloppy Japanese lineout saw the ball break loose to Lobjanidze and the youngster raced home to score, after a few minutes of deliberation from the officials. Kvirikashvili made no mistake this time with the boot and his conversion handed Georgia a 12-8 lead at the break.

The hosts began the second period like they finished the first, in a tenacious mood and seeking to increase their advantage. However, just as it seemed Georgia would score their third try of the afternoon, Japanese wing Lomano Lemeki intercepted brilliantly inside his own 22 and galloped the length of the field to restore Japan’s lead.

The home crowd, who seconds earlier had been bracing themselves to celebrate a try of their own, looked on in disbelief. Tamura again missed with the conversion but Japan led 13-12 in any case.

In the 50th minute, the Georgians’ forward dominance was turned into points as Beka Bitsadze threw himself over the line, spotting a gap in the Japanese defence, to put Georgia back in front.

Kvirikashvili’s subsequent conversion and a further three points from a 57th minute penalty put Georgia to within sight of victory, armed with a 22-13 advantage.

The Japanese had other ideas though, and within three minutes they had cut their deficit to two points. A perfectly measured kick through from center Harumichi Tatekawa was grabbed by the rapid Lemeki who burst clear to score Japan’s third try of the game, duly converted by Tamura.

If that made the home crowd uneasy, what happened next made them queasy. A flowing move into the Georgian half culminated with Tamura setting up replacement Kenki Fukuoka to touch down in the corner in the 64th minute, putting Japan into the lead for a third time.

Tamura once again failed with the conversion but did add another penalty in the closing stages to secure a six-point winning margin that looked highly unlikely until the hour mark.

After the match, Georgian head coach Milton Haig refused to be overly critical of his team and expressed hope that his men would learn and become stronger from such a frustrating experience.

He also thanked the noisy home support and pleaded with the Georgian fans to again turn up in good numbers for the match with Samoa on Saturday November19.

Alastair Watt

17 November 2016 19:37