TOKYO — As the first Asian team to host the Rugby World Cup, Japan knew it was on the game’s biggest stage on Friday night, and during the opening act it seemed most of its players were suffering from stage fright.
Perhaps it was the pressure of being the first second-tier country to host a World Cup, or the afterglow of a dazzling opening ceremony, or the presence of Japan’s crown prince. But for about 10 minutes on Friday, it looked as if Japan’s dream was turning into a nervous nightmare.
Russia, an even lower-ranked team, had scored first, and Japan’s players made several early errors. But the nerves quickly subsided and the hosts soon found their footing, riding a virtuoso performance from a winger born in South Africa to a 30-10 victory that opened the seven-week tournament.
The hero of the evening was Kotaro Matsushima, the Pretoria-born winger who had a hat trick of tries and nearly added a fourth.
Matsushima’s emergence as a star on the Brave Blossoms, as Japan’s team is known, seemed fitting on a team that reflects the gradually growing diversity of Japanese sports. He and Japan’s popular captain, Michael Leitch, a New Zealand-born flanker of half-Fijian parentage, have joined the likes of the tennis star Naomi Osaka, the sprinter Asuka Cambridge and the N.B.A. player Rui Hachimura of the Washington Wizards as mixed-race Japanese athletes who have gained global celebrity.
But the rugby stars’ growing integration into Japanese culture and growing popularity were of little use in the shaky opening minutes of Friday’s match.
“One hundred percent we were nervous, but once we got the nerves out of the way, we have started the way we wanted to,” Leitch said. “We showed great resilience, and we didn’t go into our shell. We kept playing and did a lot of work to play with purpose and be in the right spots.”
Japan’s nerves were evident almost immediately. In the fifth minute, Japan fullback William Tupou muffed a kick with no opponent near him, and the Russian winger Kirill Golosnitsky scooped up the ball and ran it in for a 5-point try, rugby’s equivalent of a touchdown. Flyhalf Yuri Kushnarev made the easy conversion to give Russia a 7-0 lead, and the partisan crowd of 45,745 sat in stunned silence.
The speedier Japanese team quickly picked up the pace, however, and after two clever offloads — the first a nifty no-look pass by outside center Timothy Lafaele — Matsushima scored the first of his three tries to close the gap to 7-5. Japan missed the conversion, though, and trailed for most of the first half despite having most of the possession, thanks to more errors and subpar kicking from flyhalf Yu Tamura.
A video review erased an apparent try by Matsushima in the 35th minute before Japan did take the lead when he scored his second try with about a minute left in the half.
Japan extended its advantage early in the second half when flanker Pieter Labuschagné — another South Africa-born player — stripped the ball from Russia’s Andrei Ostikov and sprinted 30 yards to the try line for another five-pointer. Tamura missed the conversion again, but Japan’s lead had grown to 20-7.
After the teams traded penalty goals, Matsushima’s third try, in the 69th minute, sealed Japan’s victory.
“The game was a challenge for us and the boys were nervous,” Japan’s New Zealand-born coach, Jamie Joseph, said. “We said before the game, ‘It is all about expectation,’ and the guys always prepare well.
“You realize just how much pressure there is on the guys,” he added, “and we’re proud of the way they came through in the end.”
Japan will have to improve if it is to meet its goal of advancing out of the group stage and reaching the quarterfinals for the first time. Its next opponent is the current world No. 1, Ireland, and a tough Scotland team looms after that. Only two teams from each group will advance to the quarterfinals, so Japan must find a way past one of them to move on.
“Our kicking game was pretty poor tonight,” Joseph said, “so we’re going to have to fix it up quickly.”