Ireland 60 Japan 5
The entertainers turned out to be Ireland, who so subdued Japan in a vice-like grip that the Brave Blossoms were blown away by nine tries to one.
This included a hat-trick by Andrew Conway and a man of the match performance by Jack Conan from a lengthy cast of contenders, but needless to say no one was upstaging Johnny Sexton on the occasion of his 100th cap.
The love tumbled down the stands all game as Sexton landed four from six conversions, nearly all from the touchline (which tells us much about the width with which Ireland played), a penalty and, best of all, a 15th try for Ireland.
That led to the biggest cheer of the day, rivalled only by the ovation for his post-match interview, when he admitted: “The reception I got for that try in the corner was one of the best moments of my career.”
Sexton thanked the crowd and his teammates and also admitted to feeling guilty that he had this landmark day in front of a near 40,000 crowd whereas Cian Healy’s 100th cap was behind closed doors and Rob Kearney wasn’t afforded a proper farewell either.
The Irish performance wasn’t perfect. Not every pass went to hand. There’s still plenty for Andy Farrell and the coaches to work on in readiness for an altogether more exacting challenge against the All Blacks next Saturday.
But this was an ambitious, high quality evisceration of a good Test side and Ireland go into next week’s game in fine fettle on the back of this sixth successive win.
From the off Ireland played with a high tempo and there was a noticeable emphasis on players looking to free their arms in the tackle, with trailers regularly in close support. The workrate and animation off the ball meant that Sexton especially, and others, usually had options aplenty.
All told, there were around 18 offloads (James Lowe leading the way with six), and at least 11 clean breaks against a porous Japanese side who missed 22 tackles.
It will be also be more difficult for Farrell and co to make changes after this, with some who might have been feeling the heat from established frontliners, such as Conway, James Lowe and the lively Jamison Gibson-Park, all re-enforcing their cases for inclusion against the All Blacks.
Although a few passes didn’t go to hand in a rusty start, Ireland were quick to both explore the blindside and bring Lowe into the game, and within four minutes it reaped a reward.
Bundee Aki made the key inroads from Gibson-Park’s pass to release Conan and, playing like the Lions’ Test starter he is, the number 8 drew Kotaro Matsushima to give Lowe a clear run to the corner. Sexton even landed the touchline conversion.
Even better followed in the 11th minute with a superb team try. Tadhg Furlong showed there’s no better playmaking tighthead in the game when he gave a no-look pass and Sexton shot through the ensuing gap.
Good lines of running and offloading between the centurion, Josh van der Flier, Tadhg Beirne and Aki led to further inroads and from a quick recycle Gibson-Park grubbered for Andrew Conway to score in the other corner. This time Sexton landed the conversion from the right touchline.
Ireland really were playing some good stuff and a third try emanated from Beirne contesting an attacking Japanese lineout for the alert Conan to complete the steal. From an ensuing penalty, the pack were still mauling forwards when Gibson-Park released the backs and Sexton worked his wrap with Aki before hitting Hugo Keenan who floated a lovely long pass for Conway to finish again.
Mike Catt applauded approvingly in the coaches’ box.
Sexton missed the touchline conversion although after further clear breaks by Lowe and Conan, the captain opted to tag on a close-range penalty for a 22-0 lead.
Conway was fractionally denied a quickfire hat-trick by the covering Yu Tamura from his own well weighted grubber.
Even when the dangerman Kotaro Matsushima tried to break out of turnover ball he ran into the brick wall that is Furlong, and when working extra men out wide off a rare strike move Timothy Laffaele was collared by Garry Ringrose.
Ringrose was then the instigator of the fourth try when picking from the base and giving the try-scoring offload inside to the supporting Gibson-Park.
Being picky, Ireland couldn’t convert a prolonged period on the Japanese line coming up to half-time after a Conan lineout steal and a brilliant high take by Keenan from Sexton’s pinpoint bomb.
They didn’t execute a couple of strike plays off five metre scrums either side of Furlong being awarded a close-range try before the TMO spotted his slight knock-on. That said, the pounding did yield a yellow card for Japanese hooker Atsushi Sakate for repeated Japanese penalties and Ireland’s option of a scrum meant outhalf Yu Tamura was sacrificed, which wouldn’t have made a considerable difference to their defence.
On the resumption, Porter’s strength over the ball atoned for a Rónan Kelleher overthrow but again Ireland didn’t execute the back’s strike play, Sexton informing Hugo Keenan that he should have drifted out instead of holding his line when unable to gather the captain’s high pass. He was right too.
Another lineout was stolen before the left-footed Timothy Lafaele missed the penalty to touch in Tamura’s absence and Keenan returned it with a 50:22 into the corner. This time Kelleher’s fine throw hit James Ryan under pressure at the tail before the hooker broke blind off the maul. From Gibson-Park’s tip-on Sexton broke Nagare’s tackle to induce the biggest, most sustained roar of the day.
He was also immediately engulfed by every single one of his teammates.
Needless to say, he used the breeze to fade the conversion in from the right although not from a tighter angle after another sweetly worked try, Conway creating a two-on-one for Conan to provide his second try assist as Aki stepped the last man.
As the wave of replacements began, Dan Sheehan coming on for his debut as a new front-row was introduced, Japan did score with one of their clever strike plays, Rikiya Matsuda floating a sweet long pass for Rikiya Matsuda to put Kazuki Himeno through a gap and his pass gave Siosaia Fifita the finish.
A rain shower further disrupted the game’s flow before Iain Henderson’s football skills and follow up tackle earned a five metre scrum, off which Ringrose took Conor Murray’s pass to step off his right foot and take two tackles to score.
Murray’s wicked blindside grubber then eluded the sliding Nakamura for the chasing Conway to turn a lost cause into his hat-trick try before Healy burrowed over after Sheehan had tapped a five metre penalty.
Scoring sequence: 4 mins Lowe try, Sexton con 7-0; 11 mins Conway try, Sexton con 14-0; 19 mins Conway try 19-0; 23 mins Sexton pen 22-0; 34 mins Gibson-Park try, Sexton con 29-0; (half-time 29-0); 51 mins Sexton try and con 36-0; 55 Aki try 41-0; 57 mins Fifita try 41-5; 70 mins Ringrose try, Carbery con 48-5; 74 mins Conway try 53-5; Healy try, Carbery con 60-5.
Ireland: Hugo Keenan (Leinster/UCD); Andrew Conway (Munster/Garryowen), Garry Ringrose (Leinster/UCD), Bundee Aki (Connacht/Galwegians), James Lowe (Leinster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster/St Mary's College, capt), Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster/UCD), Rónan Kelleher (Leinster/Lansdowne), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster/Clontarf); Tadhg Beirne (Munster/Lansdowne), James Ryan (Leinster/UCD); Caelan Doris (Leinster/St Mary's College), Josh van der Flier (Leinster/UCD), Jack Conan (Leinster/Old Belvedere).
Replacements: Peter O'Mahony (Munster/Cork Constitution) for van der Flier (51 mins), Dan Sheehan (Leinster/Lansdowne) for Kelleher, Cian Healy (Leinster/Clontarf) for Porter, Finlay Bealham (Connacht/Buccaneers) for Furlong (all 55 mins), Iain Henderson (Ulster/Academy) for Beirne, Conor Murray (Munster/Garryowen) for Gibson-Park (both 58 mins), Joey Carbery (Munster/Clontarf) for Sexton (62 mins), Keith Earls (Munster/Young Munster) for Aki (67 mins).
Japan: Kotaro Matsushima (Clermont Auvergne); Dylan Riley SaitamaWild 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 Koo (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: Yoshitaka Tokunaga (Toshiba Brave Lupus) for Gunter (27 mins), Ryohei Yamanaka (Kobe Steelers) for Laffaele (39-40 mins), for Nakamura (55-67 mins) and for Laffaele (67 mins), Yusuke Niwai (Yokohama Eagles) for Tamura (40-50 mins) and for Sakate (64 mins), Craig Millar (Saitama Wild Knights) for Inagaki, Asaeli Ai Valu (Saitama Wild Knights) for Koo (both 42 mins), Naoto Saito (Tokyo Sungoliath) for Nagare, Rikiya Matsuda (Saitama Wild Knights) for Tamura, (both 55 mins), Tevita Tatafu (Tokyo Sungoliath) for Tokunaga (59 mins),
Sinbinned: Sakate (40-50 mins).
Referee: Nika Amashukeli (Georgia).