Ireland v Japan: Landmark day in store for Sexton and co

Ireland will have to stay organised to counter Japan’s improved attack and set-piece

IRELAND v JAPAN
Aviva Stadium, Saturday, 1pm
Live RTÉ 2 and Channel 4

This should be a special day. If ever an Irish player deserved to be among the exclusive company of Brian O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara, Paul O'Connell and co, it is Johnny Sexton. That it comes with the great entertainers in town and the biggest crowd at a rugby match in over a year and a half enhances the sense of occasion.

"Thoroughly deserved" was how Joe Schmidt put it to The Irish Times on Friday "for the work that he's put in, the persistence he's shown and not just what he has individually brought to the game but what he's brought to the squad. His influence has been an incredibly positive one in terms of performance and the consistency of what needs to be delivered."

The former Irish coach also thinks it apt that Sexton emulates Beauden Barrett a week after the All Blacks maestro reached the landmark. “There’s a degree of irony in that they’ve matched up on a number of occasions. I suppose it’s representative of what they’ve meant to their teams.”

Sexton's landmark having been deferred from the Six Nations and July during lockdown, the only pity is that overpriced tickets and the 1pm kick-off time has meant it won't be a capacity crowd. No visiting team has the same draw as the All Blacks, hence next week's game was rapidly sold out, but by the same token 38,000 having been sold by Friday is a tribute to Japan's thrilling brand of rugby – and to Sexton.

In another sense, too, it has worked out for the better as, however uncomfortable Sexton would have been about the fuss made over him these past two weeks, he probably wouldn’t have welcomed the distraction next week. And Sexton being Sexton, the most important aspect of the day is that Ireland not only win, but play well doing so.

The showers forecast for Saturday are not set to hit Dublin during game time and, given the protagonists, it should be an open and entertaining game.

Gifted halves

If so, then Japan, with their gifted halves and midfield from the World Cup and the brilliant Kotaro Matsushima back at fullback, have enough attacking structures and individual game-breaking quality to stay in the game.

With the inventive Yu Tamura also restored at outhalf, this looks like a stronger Japanese team than was the case when extending Australia to a 32-23 win in Oita two weeks ago. They will be better for that outing against a Wallabies side that had just recorded four straight wins in the Rugby Championship against South Africa and Argentina. But the match in Oita lacked the same kind of intensity, Australia were a little lax in their execution – Quade Cooper coughing up an intercept try and missing a few kicks – and perhaps most of all they missed a focal point in attack, Samu Kerevi, a la Bundee Aki.

For all the kerfuffle about this being an overtly blue-tinged team in green, it should compensate for the lack of game time and facilitate more cohesion

Even without a game under their belt, Ireland should have sufficient preparation, familiarity and experience to bring a more uniform defence than the Wallabies did a fortnight ago. Hence, if Japan do overplay their hand and if Ireland are organised, it might play into their hands.That said, as Andy Farrell and Paul O'Connell have stressed, these Brave Blossoms are not merely the great entertainers. They have improved their set-piece, can score tries off mauls, as they did here in July, and their defence has sharpened its line speed and improved.

But their point of difference is their attacking game, whether off the structure provided by Tony Brown or their ability to conjure something out of broken play.

"The power game, for us, simply isn't in our DNA," admitted head coach Jamie Joseph this week, adding with a chuckle, "and I don't think it ever will be, to be perfectly honest.

‘Different athletes’

“We’ve got a way of playing rugby that’s different to the majority of the other teams and that’s because we’ve got different athletes. Of course we’ve got to be able to deal with that [power] when we don’t have the ball and we expect the bigger teams to target our forward pack. That’s always been the challenge for us.”

Disappointingly for Joseph, the pandemic has meant this is only their fourth match since the World Cup, compared to Ireland’s 17th, and while Sexton and his men will be playing their first international of the season and are more ring-rusty than ever entering an autumn series, there are no excuses.

Furthermore, for all the kerfuffle about this being an overtly blue-tinged team in green, it should compensate for the lack of game time and facilitate more cohesion.

It could well be similar to July, when Ireland scored five tries to four and ultimately becalmed Japan with the accuracy of their set-pieces, launch plays and power game close to the line before ultimately taking three-pointers to seal a 39-31 win.

With their Lions, past and recent, mostly restored, Ireland also appear a good deal stronger than last July. They also have enough power and dynamism up front – in set-pieces, launch plays, breakdown accuracy – to control more elements of the match. In other words, the Irish DNA in those aspects of the game should allow them to get on top and get over the line.

IRELAND: Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Andrew Conway (Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), James Lowe (Leinster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, capt), Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Rónan Kelleher (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Tadhg Beirne (Munster), James Ryan (Leinster); Caelan Doris (Leinster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Jack Conan (Leinster).

Replacements: Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Peter O'Mahony (Munster), Conor Murray (Munster), Joey Carbery (Munster), Keith Earls (Munster).

JAPAN: Kotaro Matsushima (Clermont Auvergne); Dylan Riley (Saitama Wild Knights), Timothy Lafaele (Kobe Steelers), Ryoto Nakamura (Tokyo Sungoliath), Siosaia Fifita (Hanazono Kintetsu Liners); Yu Tamura (Yokohama Eagles), Yutaka Nagare (Tokyo Sungoliath); Keita Inagaki (Saitama Wild Knights), Atsushi Sakate (Saitama Wild Knights), Jiwon Gu (Kobe Steelers); Jack Cornelsen (Saitama Wild Knights), James Moore (Tokyo Bay Urayasu); Ben Gunter (Saitama Wild Knights), Pieter Labuschagne (Kubota Spears, capt), Kazuki Himeno (Toyota Verblitz).

Replacements: Yusuke Niwai (Yokohama Eagles), Craig Millar (Saitama Wild Knights), Asaeli Ai Valu (Saitama Wild Knights), Yoshitaka Tokunaga (Toshiba Brave Lupus), Tevita Tatafu (Tokyo Sungoliath), Naoto Saito (Tokyo Sungoliath), Rikiya Matsuda (Saitama Wild Knights), Ryohei Yamanaka (Kobe Steelers).

Referee: Nika Amashukeli (Georgia)

Assistant Referees: Damon Murphy (Australia), Pierre Brousset (France)

TMO: Eric Gauzins (France)

Overall head-to-head: Played 9, Ireland 8 wins, Japan 1 win.

Betting: 1-12 Ireland, 33-1 Draw, 7-1 Japan. Handicap odds (Japan + 17 pts) 10-11 Ireland, 22-1 Draw, 10-11 Japan.

Forecast: Ireland to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times

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