Japan got back to winning ways Saturday night as they beat Tonga 21-16 in the second round of the Pacific Nations Series at Hanazono Rugby Stadium.
More than a year since their last test win -- against Uruguay on June 25, 2022 -- the Brave Blossoms looked more creative with ball in hand and better organized in defense than in recent games. But there is still plenty to work on, especially around restarts and discipline, as the clock counts down to the start of the Rugby World Cup in September.
"At times we played some really good rugby and are getting back to our best," Japan head coach Jamie Joseph said.
"We're still making some sloppy mistakes that cost us some opportunities, but some of that was down to the conditions. It was hot and the ball was slippery. But the skill level was good. After halftime, we didn't start well and Tonga put us under pressure. But in the end, I am really proud of the team in the way they ground out a win."
Jone Naikabula, Amato Fakatava and Semisi Masirewa touched down for Japan while Lee Seung Sin and Rikiya Matsuda kicked a penalty apiece.
Tonga's points came from five-pointers by Sonatane Takalua and Samiuela Moli and two penalties from William Havili.
"We did some really positive stuff out there tonight," said Takalua. "But in the first half, we played too much in our own half. In the second we fixed our game, but the Japan defense kept pushing us back and we didn't get those couple of opportunities to score."
Naikabula's stunning try in the 20th minute, following a perfectly executed backline move, and his kick ahead for Fakatava just before the break were the highlights of the first half, as the hosts took a 13-5 lead into the sheds despite having just 35 percent of possession.
The second stanza started with Japan reverting to their undisciplined ways, allowing Havili to make it a two-point game before Japan once again produced a sensational try from a set piece, Masirewa going over in the corner on his home ground.
Moli's effort from a line-out once again put two points between the sides but Matsuda's boot and a tremendous last-ditch tackle by Kotaro Matsushima ensured the hosts held out for a much-needed victory.
The Brave Blossoms wrap up their Pacific campaign next week in Tokyo when they play Fiji, who beat Samoa 33-19 in Apia earlier in the day.
"Our team have worked incredibly hard to get that performance," said Joseph.
"It's been tough. We've had a couple of really tough games against (a) New Zealand (XV) and a really hard-luck story last week (against Samoa) but we're on the board and looking forward to taking on a very strong Fijian side next week."