Saturday 22 July 2023. Japan drew first blood via Folau Fakatava, who tidied up a loose ball and reached over to plant it on the try line.
A debate followed between the referee Mathieu Raynal and the TMO on whether or not Fakatava had dropped the loose ball as he gathered it before scoring.
The TMO had ruled a no try but was ultimately overruled by the referee who seemed adamant that Fakatava fumbled the ball off his knee and that there was no knock on.
The commentators disagreed, as would Samoan fans back home and across the globe.
Samoa was off to quite a rocky start. After conceding a try, blindside flanker Taleni Seu who had a blinder of a game, was pinned by the TMO for a high tackle and ultimately shown a yellow card leaving the Manu down to 14 men for 10 minutes.
Samoa remained composed and courageous while Seu was in the sin bin. Although Japan kicked a penalty in this time, Samoa’s defense held up and the men in blue didn’t allow a try. Instead, they slotted a penalty of their own via former Wallaby Christian Leali’ifano who played a solid debut for his homeland.
Japan had full control of the first 30 minutes of the match leading 10-3 until a red card to their local hero Michael Leitch changed the momentum of the game.
Japan’s former captain was given his marching orders for a high tackle on Sootala Fa’aso’o, when he attempted to make a double hit on Samoa’s No8 after hooker and current co-captain Atsushi Sakate made the initial contact.
Leitch failed to wrap his arms as he made contact with Faasoo’s head with a tucked left shoulder.
With Japan down to 14 men, Samoa kicked for the corner and started to build phases on Japan’s try line.
After a mountain of phases, former Samoa 7s star Alamanda Motuga burrowed over for Samoa’s first try and Leali’ifano converted to level the score 10-10 at halftime.
Samoa started the second half with a plethora of errors. This led to Japan taking a quick 16-10 lead after back to back penalty kicks from inside the Manu’s red zone.
The Brave Blossom’s lead would only last 2 minutes. Jonathan Taumateine charged down a Japanese kick and dived over for Samoa’s second try.
The men in blue were just unable to secure any good lineout balls. Neither their own nor the opposition lineouts. Discipline continued to let them down resulting in two more Japanese penalty kicks.
With 14 men Japan held the lead at 22-17 with 15 minutes remaining.
Samoa’s scrum had dominated throughout the match with a 10kg weight advantage over their hosts – and it would be their scrum that would set up the match winning try for Samoa.
A solid scrum 20 meters out meant halfback Jonathan Taumateine could get a clean pass away to fullback Danny Toala.
Toala passed early to Tumua Manu and the former Chiefs and Sagaga College alumni made easy work of his opposing winger with his power and speed.
Japan’s fullback came across to tackle Manu, but instead made a business decision and decided to just let Manu stroll over for Samoa’s third try.
The match came down to the last minute with Japan attacking relentlessly on Samoa’s 40 meter line.
Knowing a penalty could lose them the match, the Samoans finally showed great discipline and gave nothing away to the Brave Blossoms as they patiently defended Japan’s desperate final attempts to steal the match.
As the clock hit 82 minutes, the Japanese hooker was pinged for a neck roll on Samoa’s Ere Enari who had come on at fullback.
The game ended with a stunned silence from the estimated 22,000 Japanese fans at Hokkaido’s Saporro Stadium
Final score 24-22 to Samoa.
Manu Samoa now fly home to Apia where they will face off against Fiji next weekend at Apia Park, and Tonga the week after.