Tokyo - Japan came within two minutes of stunning the Maori All Blacks on Saturday as the Brave Blossoms were caught by a sucker punch in a battling 20-18 defeat.
Flank Dan Pryor landed the knockout blow for the visitors by capping a lightning raid with an acrobatic try in the 78th minute, just as Japan looked to be heading for a shock victory in Tokyo a week after losing by 40 points.
"We all love the game, but sometimes the game doesn't love you," Japan coach Eddie Jones told reporters. "It didn't love us today. We were in a situation where we should have closed the game out. But in terms of our performance I'm very proud of the players."
Japan, beaten 61-21 by the tourists last weekend, were wobbling at 15-0 down after Nehe Milner-Skudder sprinted clear in the 23rd minute and Ihaia West slotted a penalty quickly afterwards.
But fleet-footed winger Akihito Yamada evaded the Maori defence to touch down in the corner moments before halftime, and the pendulum swung in Japan's favour three minutes after the restart when they were awarded a penalty try for a collapsed scrum.
An Ayumu Goromaru penalty put Japan up 18-15 in the 73rd minute and appeared to have secured a victory the home side arguably deserved for their tenacious display, only for it to be snatched away in dramatic fashion.
A quick lineout from the left caught Japan napping before Maori captain Charlie Ngatai exploded clear and flipped the ball lavishly behind his back for Pryor to charge over the line, extending their unbeaten run to 18 matches.
Japan's inability to kill off a game they dominated for long periods in front of a sellout crowd of 25 000 once again brought the subject of introducing a Super Rugby franchise to the country into sharp focus.
"To get a Super Rugby team would definitely help to improve Japanese rugby considerably," said Jones, mindful that Super Rugby organisers SANZAR have yet to sign off on allowing a Japanese side to join the competition for the 2016 season.
"The only way you get better at playing those high-pressure games is by playing more, so let's hope. We're climbing a mountain. We're still a distance from the peak but we're moving in the right direction."
A run of 10 successive Test victories had propelled Japan into the world's top 10 for the first time following a superb win over Six Nations side Italy in June, and Jones has targeted a place in the quarter-finals at next year's World Cup.
Maori All Blacks coach Colin Cooper agreed that bringing Super Rugby to Japan would help accelerate the game's development before the country hosts the World Cup in five years time.
"I know the Japanese are very committed and with Eddie Jones coaching Japan, they've shown what they could do with a Super Rugby team here," he said after his team narrowly avoided an upset. "It would be great preparation for the 2019 World Cup."