Japan, Samoa face off to stay in Rugby World Cup quarterfinals race

TOULOUSE, France (AP) — The situation for Japan and Samoa at the Rugby World Cup could hardly be tighter going into their pool match on Thursday.

They are tied on five points in Pool D after two games each. They have the same number of tries — six — and conceded only one each. Samoa leads their points scored tally by just one, 54-53. In their last match two months ago in the Pacific Nations Cup, Samoa had a man advantage but had to come from behind twice to win by two points.

The winner in Toulouse will stay in quarterfinals contention while the loser’s hopes will be all but snuffed out. Both teams need the confidence boost, let alone a win. Their last pool games are another step up; Japan meets Argentina while Samoa tackles England.

“We’re at a situation at this tournament,” Japan assistant coach John Mitchell said, “where they are actually going to have to fight and care for each other more than any other day — it’s not just like any other test match.

“It’s really important on both sides of the ball that we really do show our heart and how much it means to us, and how much this tournament is an opportunity to present a message to the next generation.”

JAPAN vs. SAMOA (Samoa leads 12-5 overall, Japan leads 2-1 in RWC)

Japan and Samoa broke ground at the Rugby World Cup by handling the spirited Chileans. Then both ran into trouble.

Japan’s year-long poor form and leaky defense could not expose an equally poor and uninspiring England in Nice. Japan’s 2019 quarterfinalists would have run rings around 2023 England, but shutting down during the COVID-19 pandemic has regressed Japan.

Despite unforced errors and woeful clearances from the 22, the Japanese closed within a point of England in the 54th minute. But the positive vibes lasted only two minutes when England scored a fluky try from the ball bouncing forward off the head of prop Joe Marler. The tension disappeared, Japan faded and England skipped away from 13-12 to win 34-12.

As bad as Japan was towards the end of the England game, Samoa made a horrible start against a vulnerable Argentina in Saint-Etienne. Samoa fullback Duncan Paia’aua conceded a yellow card in the first minute, and Argentina scored a try where Paia’aua would have been. Christian Leali’ifano, who didn’t kick well from hand, missed two penalty shots and a halftime lead Samoa should have owned turned into a 13-3 deficit that the Pumas, growing in confidence, never looked like giving up.

Samoa, unable to get its game going, made more tackles — 139 — than meters, 132.

With flyhalf Lima Sopoaga still injured, coach Seilala Mapusua backed Leali’ifano to rebound.

“As a player, you might not get it right on the day and that’s OK because you’ve got 14 other guys on the field there to help you,” Mapusua said. “I know our whole squad back him up 100%. Christian is looking forward to getting back on the field and putting in a strong performance.”

___ AP Rugby World Cup: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby

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