Italian job: Azzurri edge feisty Japan to tie rugby series

Italy's number eight Jake Polledri was among the try-scorers.
AFP

Kobe (Japan) (AFP) – Italy completed a nail-biting 25-22 away win over Japan on Saturday to tie their two-Test series against the 2019 World Cup hosts.

The Italians attacked with real purpose in Kobe after being humbled 34-17 by the Brave Blossoms last weekend, but needed two clutch penalties from fly-half Tommaso Allan to repel a furious late Japan fightback.

“It was our last game of the season so we’re really happy to finish like that,” said Italy captain Leonardo Ghiraldini.

“We know exactly where we want to go — our target at the World Cup is to qualify for the quarter-finals, but we have the Six Nations before that and that’s our focus.”

Tommaso Benvenuti opened the scoring for Italy in the 19th minute after a period of sustained early pressure, diving over in the corner after good work from Marcello Violi.

A superb driving maul gave Ghiraldini the opportunity to extend his side’s lead before a Yu Tamura penalty reduced the deficit to 12-3 going into the halftime break.

When Jake Polledri added a converted try for the visitors soon after the restart, the floodgates looked set to open with Japan’s defence clearly wobbling.

But as tempers threatened to boil over after several niggling fouls, Will Tupou and Amanaki Mafi crashed over the try line in quick succession to haul the Japanese to within two points.

Allan slotted two late penalties and appeared to have extinguished Japan’s hopes of a comeback before Kotaro Matsushima’s last-minute try set up a nervous final few seconds.

“Both sides went at it furiously and showed a lot of heart but obviously the result is a real disappointment,” said Japan captain Michael Leitch, whose side face Georgia in a one-off home Test next weekend.

“It was difficult to match their energy. They pushed us back deeper and deeper, but there are a lot of things to learn from this defeat. Georgia are a different team again we’ll prepare carefully and be ready for them.”

Japan, once the whipping boys of the World Cup, won three matches at the 2015 tournament under current England coach Eddie Jones, including an astonishing 34-32 victory over two-time world champions South Africa.

Their form dipped after former All Black Jamie Joseph took over in 2016 but the Japanese have shown improvement over the past year, particularly in a 23-23 draw with France in Paris last November, a match they should have won.

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