Gerry Thornley: Entertainers Japan and New Zealand will rid us of bad summer memories

First capacity crowd at the Aviva in 19 months is assured for the All Blacks Test

New Zealand’s Sevu Reece  scores a try during the autumn international against wales at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

New Zealand’s Sevu Reece scores a try during the autumn international against wales at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

 

Back in July and early August, when the Springboks and the British & Irish Lions were treating us to that ugly kickfest, and Rassie was helping to heap more paralysis by analysis on the officials as an hour-long video was the precursor to an hour-long half, rugby was taking quite a kicking.

Never mind that Harlequins had just been perhaps the Premiership’s most thrilling winners of all time, that Leinster and Toulouse had classily retained their titles, with the latter completing a domestic and European double in their distinctive style.

Never mind either that Ireland had backed up a richly entertaining 39-31 win over Japan by running in 10 tries with a young, remodelled team against the US or that on the same day as the third Lions Test in Cape Town, over in Eden Park the All Blacks were sharing eight tries in a 33-25 win over the Wallabies before a week later scoring eight tries to three in a spectacular 57-22 win over the same unfortunate opponents in front of over 25,000 real, live and cheering supporters.

Little allowance was made for the Boks and the Lions playing in front of empty stadia, as rugby had done for much of the preceding year in keeping the show on the road. A Lions tour is a once-every-four years opportunity to showcase the game, something it had singularly failed to do this time. Seasonal restructuring had also meant the Lions tour endured until the first week of August, a month later than normal. Rugby had outstayed its welcome.

Now, the return of international rugby with this year’s autumn series is welcome and, with the first capacity crowd at the Aviva in 19 months assured for the All Blacks Test, should be fun to watch too.

Ireland’s first two opponents, Japan and New Zealand, are the great entertainers.

This will be Ireland’s fifth meeting with the Brave Blossoms in just over four years, as many as had ever happened between the two countries previously. In that time they have gatecrashed the game’s established elite in a manner only Argentina have done in the professional era.

Japan’s 19-12 win over Ireland in the 2019 World Cup was probably the second greatest victory in their history, surpassed for sheer scale by their astonishing pool win over the subsequent finalists South Africa in Brighton four years before. But that win in Shizuoka was more far-reaching. As hosts all eyes were on them. At a stroke it brought the tournament vibrantly to life in Japan. It was a before-and-after moment.

Japan players bow to the crowd at teh Aviva Stadium in July after the Test match against Ireland. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Japan players bow to the crowd at teh Aviva Stadium in July after the Test match against Ireland. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

What’s more, although their match-winning try in Brighton had been a thing of daring beauty, that tumultuous victory had largely been founded on the structures put in place by Eddie Jones and Steve Borthwick. By contrast, what Japan achieved at the last World Cup owed more to the high-tempo, accelerating into contact, offloading game and high ball-in-play time nurtured by Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown.

Nor are they for turning. Brown has openly admitted he expected to be part of a post-2019 World Cup All Blacks coaching ticket, be it under Ian Foster or Scott Robertson.

Ultimately though, Brown couldn’t walk away from the Brave Blossoms, in large part because he felt there was more scope to explore the parameters of their attacking potential, and that Joseph will afford his assistant’s innovative approach full rein.

The pair believe they can emulate reaching the quarter-final two years ago at the next World Cup in France, where they are drawn in the same pool as England and Argentina.

The pandemic has hit them harder than any other country dining at the top table. (If they don’t join the Rugby Championship the sport will be missing a trick.) They have only played three Tests in the last two years, rattling the Lions’ cage in Murrayfield before extending Ireland in the Aviva last July, scoring four tries in a game which saw the lead change hands seven times.

Had there been more than 3,000 present, the gasps and applause in response to their thrilling skills would have made for a right din. Yu Tamura’s outrageous grubber kick for Siosaia Fifita’s try springs to mind. Ireland scored some crackers too, Stuart McCloskey’s corner flag finish from Peter O’Mahony’s offload rounding off a passage of heads-up, unstructured rugby.

The core of the side which beat Ireland in Shizuoka were in harness last July and again in Japan’s only other outing since then, when bringing Australia back to a 27-23 lead with five minutes remaining in the Oita Stadium two weeks ago. What made that all the more remarkable was that the Japanese players hadn’t even played any club rugby in between.

Ireland will be glad that they are playing equally rusty opponents first. By contrast, their Test calendar almost unaffected thanks to their government’s handling of the pandemic, New Zealand were recording their 11th win in 12 Tests since July when beating Wales 54-16 last Saturday.

They’ve scored 89 tries in those dozen matches, and even in eight Tests against Tier 1 sides, their Rugby Championship rivals and Wales, they’ve averaged six per game.

Their ability to come alive off turnovers or counterattacks is unrivalled, as is their finely-tuned offloading and support play in the narrowest of corridors amid traffic. Roof open? Torrents of rain? No problem. These skills have long been fined tuned in New Zealand winters.

Sevu Reece’s finish emanated from a 50-metre touch-finder by Rhys Priestland, but the moment Beauden Barrett gathered and prepared to take a quick throw inside his own 10-metre line, five team-mates had worked back for the counter. Reece then latched onto Jordan Barrett’s clever chip before exchanging passes with Rieko Ioane and Ardie Savea in turn to score – 19 seconds in creation and execution.

Six minutes from time Anton Lienert-Brown dived on to a Welsh turnover on halfway and popped the ball up to Brad Weber. There followed a bewildering array of offloads, support lines and side-steps at high speed, featuring the unstoppable Savea, Ioane, Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga, and had the latter’s offload to Weber gone to hand a yard from the line it would have been a try of the season contender.

So that’s the next two Saturdays sorted then.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.