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Hosts Japan swat aside Russia 30-10 in Rugby World Cup opener

Issei Kato, Reuters | Japan players greet fans after the match, September 20, 2019.

Kotaro Matsushima scored a hat trick of tries as hosts Japan overcame a strong bout of nerves to overwhelm unfancied Russia 30-10 in the Rugby World Cup's opening match on Friday.

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Matsushima became Japan's first World Cup hat-trick scorer, as well as notching his own first treble at international level. The pacey right winger's finishing proved the difference as Japan was otherwise sloppy against a lowly ranked but tenacious Russia.

The Tokyo Stadium crowd was stunned after four minutes as fullback William Tupou missed a routine catch under no pressure to allow left winger Kirill Golosnitskiy an easy converted try. Another first: The quickest opening-match try in tournament history.

"There was a bit of magic with us but it wasn't for long enough," Russia coach Lyn Jones said. "It's playing at an intensity and focus the players just aren't used to."

Japan equalised seven minutes later, as Tupou's looping pass set up Matsushima in the right corner, followed by a woefully botched conversion attempt from flyhalf Yu Tamura.

“The result was very surprising because it was actually Russia who scored first,” said FRANCE 24 Sport Editor Simon Harding.

“What embodied the game was too many mistakes by a Japanese team who are tipped to go far,” Harding continued. “Their coach has said they want to become the first Asian team to go past the group stage – but if they start nervously like this again, it’s going to be very difficult.”

Back in the USSR?

Pockets of Russian fans – including a handful dressed as Soviet-era astronauts – were louder than the home crowd watching in silent anxiety as the home team dropped high balls or fumbled them.

It could have been even worse but this was not New Zealand attacking them. After Japan again carelessly gave the ball away, Russia centre Vladimir Ostroushko burst through midfield but kicked ahead aimlessly instead of waiting for support.

Matsushima thought he had a second try five minutes from halftime, but fullback Vasily Artemyev made a brilliant captain's tackle and video review showed Matsushima spilling the ball inches above the ground. Referee Nigel Owens ruled it out, drawing jeers.

Moments from the interval, Matsushima made it count as Japan finally established a period of sustained pressure and centre Ryoto Nakamura fed him an overlap pass for an easy converted score.

After Tamura's penalty settled nerves in the second half, the anxiety lifted when flanker Pieter Labuschagne stripped Andrei Ostrikov before scampering 40 meters over for an unconverted try.

Russia battled away, still, and flyhalf Yuri Kushnarev's penalty cut the deficit with 20 minutes left after Japan infringed at the ruck.

But Tamura found his range, at last, to slot over a 45-metre penalty to give Japan a better cushion.

Then Matsushima finished Russian resistance off, breaking a weak tackle as he overlapped again down the right.

For Russia it was a learning experience.

"When we did have the ball they took our time away. Our boys are just not used to that. Tier one rugby isn't another level, it's another sport," Jones said. "I'm very proud of the way our players stuck in there and gave everything they had for their nation."

Russia has little time to recover, with Samoa coming up on Tuesday. Japan's next Pool A match is against Ireland next Saturday.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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