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Matt Williams: Ireland’s Japan defeat a victory for rugby

Ireland’s attacking philosophy is outdated as they fail to evolve from the highs of 2018

Ireland's devastating defeat at the hands of Japan was a long time coming, for both teams.

In awarding the Rugby World Cup to Japan, World Rugby had two primary objectives. Firstly, gain exposure for the tournament on the lucrative Japanese and wider Asian sporting markets. Secondly, it wanted to bring rugby's profile centre stage in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Last weekend, while Irish eyes were crying, high fives were being exchanged within World Rugby. As tough as this is to hear, the result could not have been better for the tournament and for rugby in Japan.

Even tougher to hear? It was a victory for the game of rugby.


Sorry. I know that hurt.

Japan have been working towards that performance for eight years. Their process is deeply rooted in the methodical, highly planned culture of corporate Japan, because that is where Japan’s professional rugby is based.

The giant Japanese corporations like Toyota, Sanyo and NEC are also the leading clubs in Japan's club rugby competitions. Sporting community clubs like we see in the GAA, rugby and soccer in Ireland simply do not exist in Japanese rugby.

Instead the teams supported and named after the massive corporations are the ones to deliver professional rugby to the people in Japan. That system has a major weakness. If you are not part of one of those corporations, supporting a team that represents a company has little appeal to the general Japanese fan.


World Rugby recognised that the key to cracking the Japanese market is that the whole country gets behind the national team. If Japan can win, rugby will prosper. The famous victory by the Brave Blossoms over the Springboks in 2015 was the first sign that the internal policies of employing world class coaches and limiting the clubs to only two non-eligible Japanese players in club matches was working.

The Blossoms were primed and ready to explode against Ireland. They studied the Eddie Jones game plan that nullified Ireland's extremely limited attack in the Six Nations. They rehearsed and set an ambush for the men in green, who walked, trance like, into its teeth.

It was a victory of momentous proportions. It signalled the arrival of a new player at the top level of world rugby. A player with massive financial clout, the best paid internal club competition in the world and, surprisingly, a massive player population.

Like Japan's victory, Ireland's defeat was also a long time coming.

Just as Argentina burst onto the global stage by defeating Ireland in Lens 20 years ago, the world watched, slack jawed, as Japan made an emphatic statement. Ireland now have the dubious honour of promoting both Argentina and Japan into rugby's elite.

Like Japan’s victory, Ireland’s defeat was also a long time coming. Long time readers will know that for several years I have been highly critical of the inability to create space and score tries when they are under pressure and behind on the scoreboard. Last week those poor attacking chooks came home to roost.

Here we should remember the comments of two eminent opposition coaches regarding Ireland's attack. Ian Foster, the New Zealand assistant coach, eloquently described Ireland's philosophy of multiple phases with structured running and no offloading as: "They want to suffocate you with possession."

John Mitchell, the former New Zealand coach and current England defence coach, was much less politically correct when he said Ireland's attack would "bore the shit out of you."

I am leaning towards John’s vivid description.

I have heard defenders of the current system say argue that the philosophy defeated New Zealand. It did, but that was 2018 which is long ago and so very far away. The game has evolved but the Irish attacking tactics have not.

Stuttering attack

Charles Darwin said: "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change." Those words are written on the wall at the entrance to the Natural History Museum in Dublin. The Irish coaching staff should pay a visit.

The stuttering attack Ireland displayed against Russia remains deeply rooted in the philosophy of 2018. It has not adapted to the changes in opposition defences and was once again lacking creativity. Ireland laboured for an hour to gain a bonus-point fourth try. Just 35 points scored against the Russian minnows is simply not good enough in attack.

The basics of running onto the ball at pace were abandoned by many of the forward runners who were standing still as they received it. This alone stopped Ireland from creating any high tempo phase attack.

Slow ruck ball stops Ireland from creating space for the prodigious talents of players like Ringrose, Earls or Larmour.

With the giant physicality of South Africa looming as a potential quarter-final opponent, that Russian performance does nothing to dispel my belief that the Irish attack remains highly inadequate. Ireland's philosophy from 2018 and has not evolved. It was always a boring style of play, but back then it was successful.

Now it is simply boring.

There are plenty of doubts around Ireland’s remaining World Cup journey. A situation that would never have happened if Ireland had adopted an attitude of growth after their famous win against New Zealand. Instead, we are forced to make do with outdated attacking philosophies.

All of which helped the Brave Blossoms to evolve, adapt and prosper.