England have officially qualified for the World Cup quarter-finals as Japan’s victory here means Steve Borthwick’s side are guaranteed to finish top of Pool D.
Michael Leitch scored two tries for the rejuvenated Brave Blossoms, who now face a showdown with Argentina in Nantes on October 8 to decide which of them reaches the last eight along with England, who take on Samoa the previous night in Lille.
The Pacific islanders will be without their wing, Ben Lam, who was sent off for an ugly, dangerous head-on-head tackle.
On this evidence, an English clean sweep in the round-robin stage is all but assured, even though Samoa grew into this game and finished strongly. They have plenty of route-one physicality, a solid scrum and the dexterous brilliance of Saracens forward Theo McFarland in their armoury, but they should not have sufficient creativity, pace and kicking pedigree to upset England.
Michael Leitch scored two tries for Japan in the hard-fought victory over Samoa
In contrast, Japan – who were woefully short of momentum coming into this tournament – appear to be regaining lost ambition and fluency.
Some of their attacking play last night offered glimpses of the dazzling brilliance which illuminated the last global showpiece, which they hosted in 2019.
Despite being forced to cling on at the end, Jamie Joseph’s team will now believe they can knock out the Pumas – knowing that the prize would be a likely quarter-final clash with Wales in Marseille.
The Japanese went ahead in the 13th minute. After full-back Lomano Lemeki blasted out of a tackle to go clear on the left, flanker Pieter Labuschagne stretched past the final defender to score. Eight minutes before the break, Rikiya Lemeki went on the rampage again and Matsuda’s lofted pass sent Michael Leitch crashing over in the left corner. Matsuda converted again.
Both sides were reduced to 14 men as first Jonathan Taumateine and Shota Horie were sin-binned, then just before the break, Seilala Lam touched down from a lineout drive to reduce the gap to nine points.
Early in the second half, Samoa wing Ben Lam was sin-binned for a dangerous high tackle and after a review of the head collision, his yellow card was upgraded to red. Moments later, Japan kicked a penalty to the right corner and their rolling maul concluded with Leitch touching down again.
Samoa wing Ben Lam was sent off for an ugly head-on-head tackle on Pieter Labuschagne
Another Matsuda penalty extended the deficit, then Kotaro Matsushima streaked clear to score what would have been Japan’s bonus-point try, but it was ruled out for an infringement in the build-up.
Samoa capitalised on their reprieve, as Tumua Manu thundered through midfield and two slick handling contributions by McFarland teed up a try for Duncan Paia’aua and Christian Leali’ifano converted from a wide angle.
But Japan wrested back control, advanced up the field and Matsuda struck another penalty to ram home the Far East country’s advantage with five minutes remaining.
Samoa wouldn’t go quietly though and there was still time for Leali’ifano to add a late converted try to earn his side a bonus point which was deserved reward for their spirited resistance when reduced to 14 men.