- Associated Press - Sunday, October 11, 2015

GLOUCESTER, England (AP) - Japan’s 28-18 win over the United States on Sunday brought the curtains down on a Rugby World Cup pool stage that it lit up.

The last pool match didn’t have the jaw-dropping thrills of Japan’s win over South Africa on the second day of the tournament, or the smothering domination of the win over Samoa, but it was a slice of history nevertheless.

Japan became the first team to win three out of four pool matches and not advance to the quarterfinals. The one loss was to Scotland, when the fatigued Brave Blossoms were over-run in the second half just four days after upsetting the Springboks. Wouldn’t they love a rematch against the Scots with equal rest. Japan also beat the U.S. Eagles for the first time in the tournament, after losses in 1987 and 2003.

It was departing coach Eddie Jones’ desire for the Brave Blossoms to leave as the team of the tournament, and after the pool stage, they do.

They go home with three wins, having arrived with only one previous win in the tournament - in 1991 against Zimbabwe - and attracted unprecedented interest in rugby at home, where tens of millions tuned in to watch their games on TV.

“The last game we played there was 25 million watching on,” Jones said. “I imagine tonight there might be 30 million. That’s not a bad support base.”

They also generated positive interest in the Rugby World Cup they will host in 2019, the first in Asia, after the Japan government put the tournament at risk in midyear by delaying construction of the showpiece stadium in Tokyo so it won’t be ready in 2019.

“Probably 60 percent of this squad can go to the next World Cup, so the guy who takes over is going to have a good squad to work with,” Jones added.

Jones was going to South African Super Rugby team the Stormers because he didn’t want to remain employed by a Japanese Rugby Football Union he believed was holding back the game. He doubted the union’s ability to turn the team’s achievements in England into a lasting legacy, and has been critical of coaching development.

But he had only praise for the Eagles for their doggedness.

“They just kept coming and coming, and we really had to draw on all our resources, our fitness, and skill at the end to win,” Jones said. “That’s a great result for us.”

The Eagles beat Japan only three months ago, and sacrificed their second-stringers against South Africa in a 64-0 loss midweek to save their best players in an attempt to earn their first win. But, typically of their pool matches, they played well only in patches.

“Credit to Japan, we were hoping to spoil their party, but they’re a formidable team right now,” U.S. captain Chris Wyles said.

That mettle was quickly on display, when flyhalf Kosei Ono’s line break and chip ahead was regathered, and great hands gave left winger Kotaro Matsushima an overlap in the seventh minute.

The Eagles regained the lead with a sustained buildup, and a giant cut-out pass by fullback Wyles put in winger Takudzwa Ngwenya for his first World Cup try since his 2007 highlight, when he made his name by showing up Bryan Habana in Montpellier, France.

The U.S. dropped the ball at the restart, Yoshikazu Fujita flashed in, and he finished the move by scoring in - of all places for a winger - a rolling maul.

Ayumu Goromaru’s second conversion and first penalty sent them into halftime 17-8 up, and 20-8 coming out.

Ngwenya looked bound for a second try until he was run down from behind by replacement flanker Amanaki Mafi, who scored a try while U.S. prop Eric Fry was in the sin-bin for a professional foul.

The U.S. closed with a Wyles try from a huge miss-out pass by AJ MacGinty to get within seven points with eight minutes remaining, but Goromaru’s fifth goal from six attempts eased any Japan nerves.

As his teammates walked around the stadium to chants of “Nippon, Nippon,” Goromaru was overcome with emotion while receiving his second man-of-the-match award at the tournament. Perhaps its World Cup organizers who should cry at Japan’s exit.

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