Japan's hopes of reaching the quarterfinals of the Rugby World Cup were dashed by Argentina on Sunday as a hat-trick of tries by wing Mateo Carreras helped the Pumas to a 39-27 win in a highly entertaining game in front of 33,624 fans at Stade de la Beaujoire.
The reward for Argentina is a game against Pool C winners Wales in Marseilles next Saturday for a place in the semifinals, while Japan fly home with their heads held high following a valiant display against a side that has the benefit of playing regularly in a top-tier tournament.
Following his final game as head coach of Japan, Jamie Joseph expressed pride in his team for overcoming adversity, including a prolonged lack of matches amid the coronavirus pandemic, to reach the brink of their second straight World Cup quarterfinals and first on foreign soil.
"As a coach, you don't really ask for much more. (The players) gave everything they possibly could," Joseph said.
"Through really tough and difficult circumstances, they've been able to get to a stage at the World Cup they can be proud of."
On a warm, sunny day in Nantes, the Brave Blossoms got off to the worst possible start as Santiago Chocobares made the most of a missed tackle by Kotaro Matsushima to cross with just two minutes on the clock.
Losing in the aerial battles and slipping off first-time tackles, the Brave Blossoms needed a spark to get their game going.
It came via Amato Fakatava in the 16th minute. The big lock showed pace, awareness and good kicking skills to power down the wing before collecting his own chip ahead and crossing the chalk.
Argentina's superiority in the aerial game, however, allowed them to regain the lead through Carreras as the Pumas made the most of Pieter "Lappies" Labuschagne's 10 minutes in the sin bin to launch a counter-attack and outflank the Japan defense.
A penalty from Emiliano Boffelli extended the lead to 15-7 before Japan struck back in style.
A good offload from Dylan Riley and support play from Siosaia Fifita created space for Naoto Saito to go over, with Rikiya Matsuda's conversion making it a one-point game at the break.
Japan trailed in both possession and territory, but took opportunities when they presented themselves, and just needed to keep the ball and not allow the Pumas to launch their dangerous backs.
It was Argentina, however, who got the first score of the second stanza when Carreras grabbed his second try after the Pumas pack kept the ball alive for multiple phases.
Boffelli's conversion meant Japan had to score twice, and Matsuda provided the first with a penalty in the 52nd minute. And he was quickly followed onto the scoresheet by Lomano Lava Lemeki with a well-taken drop goal.
But the Pumas struck back with Boffelli going over, rather too easily, from a scrum 22 meters out, the wing's conversion of his own try putting nine points between the two teams.
That became just two when Jone Naikabula dived over in the corner and Matsuda added the extras from the touchline.
But it was the Pumas who finished stronger with Carreras grabbing his third try of the afternoon and Nicolas Sanchez banging over a penalty to ensure there was no way back for the Brave Blossoms.
Argentina coach Michael Cheika admitted to "some nervous moments in the coach's box" against a Japanese side that continued to throw counterpunches throughout the game.
"The tournament has been so competitive and even when you feel like you get yourself ahead a little bit, everyone is playing for their lives, so we gave them a few easy entries back into the game," Cheika said. "But you look on the positive of that, we turn that around and get better next week and maybe we'll be a chance."
Although the vanquished Brave Blossoms will consider the game one that got away, they proved they were a team to be taken seriously on the big stage in France.
"We really came close to winning and I'm frustrated not to win," said Matsuda, who believes it is a matter of time until Japan return to the quarterfinals and go even further.
"We've worked these past four years aiming to top the last-eight finish from the 2019 tournament. I believe we can go much, much further and we'll keep going with our eyes set on the four years ahead."
Japan captain Kazuki Himeno echoed the fly-half's sentiments.
"This time, we couldn't get to the top of Mount Everest...but I believe that Japan rugby will continue to grow."