TORONTO - Canada is ranked ahead of Japan in the rugby pecking order. But when the two nations face each other at the Rugby World Cup, they couldn’t be more equal.
Tuesday’s encounter in Napier, N.Z. produced a 23-23 scoreline, the first tie game of the tournament.
What makes that result more incredible is that four years ago in Bordeaux, France, the two sides produced that tournament’s only stalemate.
Only difference was, that 12-12 game was a painfully lacklustre display of the game. Tuesday’s effort, while mistake-filled, was much more enjoyable.
And it was an important two points for Canada because unless Tonga pulls off some miracle against France later in the week, Canada will finish third in Pool A even with a loss to New Zealand an almost certainty. That would be good enough for automatic qualification to the 2015 World Cup. Japan, who was playing its final match of the tournament, has now gone 20 years since its last victory in a World Cup.
Canada had a size advantage but Japan had the speed edge, so it was only fitting the qualities would cancel each other out.
Canada opened the scoring. Following a long lineout throw, DTH Van Der Merwe scooted 40 metres but was stopped just short of the Japanese line. However, the territorial advantage was good enough that in the seventh minute, Van Der Merwe got a second chance and found the end line for a 7-0 lead.
Japan’s response came just three minutes later with a good drive ending in a try by Shota Horie. The hooker touched the ball down just over the line to tie the match.
The Asian side continued to add pressure and made many nice drives. A penalty kick by New Zealand-born James Arlidge gave Japan a 10-7 lead in the 24th minute. It would extend the lead to 17-7 just before halftime when Kosuke Endo finished off a stint deep in Canada’s end with a try underneath the posts.
Canada came out strong early in the second half. It found a bit of space after a scrum and Phil Mackenzie, with only a couple of attempted foot tackles to dodge, raced 30 metres for the try that would cut the lead to 17-12 in the 43rd minute. Ander Munro, who had taken over the kicking duties midway through the game from James Pritchard, missed the conversion.
Munro would miss two penalty opportunities later in the half but finally found his line in the 64th minute. Only two minutes later, Arlidge would add his second penalty and the Japanese held a 20-15 lead.
They would stretch that lead to 23-15 after another Arlidge kick from about 35 metres out, leaving Canada with a lot to do with just seven minutes left. But it only took them two to get close to the Japanese line where Munro would finish off the drive to cut the lead to 23-20.
And while Munro would miss the penalty kick, he did get a final chance at redemption two minutes from full time when he casually converted a penalty kick from 25 metres out to tie the affair.
For Canada, the missed kicks may have proved to be some of its undoing but it will need to clean up some of its sloppy play if it is to give the All Blacks any kind of test on Sunday.
“From our perspective, I thought we played some reasonable rugby in the first half,” Canadian coach Kieran Crowley said. “But our handling errors let us down and put the pressure straight back.”
“You can’t afford to score points and then make a mistake which puts them straight back into it.”
In the day’s other game, Italy scored the final three tries of the match to put away the United States 27-10.