Japan stun stuttering France
REPORT: Japan held France to a 23-23 draw in their final November international at U Arena in Paris on Saturday, with the hosts lucky to avoid a sixth straight defeat.
Jamie Joseph's Japan dominated for much of the game and outscored their opponents by three tries to two, but flyhalf Yu Tamura missed a simple late conversion that would have sealed a famous win.
In the first international at the newly-opened venue and its artificial pitch, Japan could have won the game after Asaeli Ai Valu crossed in the 74th minute, but Tamura let France and their coach Guy Noves off the hook.
Noves had responded to last week's 18-17 loss to South Africa, their 13th in just 21 matches under Noves, by replacing six of the backs that started that game, while flanker Sekou Macalou and wing Gabriel Lacroix were handed debuts.
Former All Black Joseph made just one alteration to his Japan team that beat Tonga 39-6, with Yutaka Nagare taking the place of Fumiaki Tanaka at scrumhalf.
Japan started brightly, pushing France back, and struck first as flyhalf Tamara slotted over a penalty.
After twice giving away possession with handling errors, France were forced into some fierce defence on their own line after an excellent break by Japan captain Michael Leitch, before breaking the shackles and levelling the scores through a long-range Francois Trinh-Duc penalty.
The hosts should have scored the opening try after a sweeping move that took them from one end of the pitch to the other, but Macalou fumbled at the line and the visiting defence held firm.
But Japan continued to be the better side and scored the opening try their enterprising play deserved when hooker Shota Horie dived over in the corner, although Tamura missed the tricky conversion.
The hosts almost hit back immediately, but Lacroix was unable to touch down before being bundled into touch, while the home crowd jeered in disgust when Trinh-Duc opted to kick a penalty for the posts instead of the corner as he cut the gap to two points.
With 90 seconds until the interval, the flyhalf did kick a penalty for the corner, and it paid off, with sustained pressure leading to Clermont prop Slimani barrelling over.
Trinh-Duc added the extras to put a flat home side five points to the good at the interval.
But Japan flew out of the blocks in the second period, with centre Timothy Lafaele barging through the hapless France defence to touch down and Tamura's simple conversion edged the tourists ahead.
A third Japanese try almost followed, but Kazuki Himeno was denied by a forward pass in the build-up.
France hit back again, though, with La Rochelle's Lacroix scoring a debut try from a long cross-field kick by Trinh-Duc, who successfully converted.
Noves' side were still spending most of the second half camped inside their own 22, but survived a flurry of Japan five-metre line-outs.
Japan were given a further boost when Lacroix was sin-binned for tackling Tamura in the air.
Tamura and Trinh-Duc traded penalties to leave the game still finely balanced heading into the final 10 minutes, and the Brave Blossoms finally grabbed their third try as replacement prop Ai Valu cleverly took the ball from a ruck to score.
But Tamura missed the simplest of conversions when he should have given Japan only a second win over a Tier-One nation, after their famous 34-32 victory against South Africa at the 2015 World Cup.
Cons: Trinh-Duc 2
Pens: Trinh-Duc 3
Tries:Horie, Lafaele, Ishihara
Pens: Tamura 2
France: 15 Scott Spedding, 14 Gabriel Lacroix, 13 Damian Penaud, 12 Henry Chavancy, 11 Teddy Thomas, 10 Francois Trinh-Duc, 9 Baptiste Serin, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Sekou Macalou, 6 Judicaël Cancoriet, 5 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 4 Romain Taofifenua, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (captain), 1 Jefferson Poirot.
Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Daniel Kotze, 18 Sebastien Taofifenua, 19 Paul Jedrasiak, 20 Fabien Sanconnie, 21 Antoine Dupont, 22 Mathieu Bastareaud, 23 Hugo Bonneval.
Japan: 15 Kotaro Matsushima, 14 Lomano Lemeki, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Harumichi Tatekawa, 11 Kenki Fukuoka, 10 Yu Tamura, 9 Yutaka Nagare, 8 Amanaki Mafi, 7 Michael Leitch (captain), 6 Kazuki Himeno, 5 Shinya Makabe, 4 Wimpie van der Walt, 3 Jiwon Koo, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Keita Inagaki.
Replacements: 16 Atsushi Sakate, 17 Shintaro Ishihara, 18 Asaeli Ai Valu, 19 Yoshitaka Tokunaga, 20 Fetuani Lautami, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Sione Teaupa, 23 Yoshikazu Fujita.
Referee: Luke Pearce (England)
Assistant referees: George Clancy (Ireland), Joy Neville (Ireland)
TMO: Sean Davey (England)