It was set up to be Ireland’s moment of reaffirmation; a second match against the weakest team of the pool, a recalibration of position and world status after the biff and grind of Australia and falling over the line in the first game
Japan were the gentle blossoms of the pool.
But as a hushed crowd looked helplessly on it was Ireland who creaked and groaned for an entire first half and out of a muggy evening Japan threatened an eclipse that would throw a shadow over UCD’s Belfield Bowl.
It lasted for a full 73 minutes before Nora Stapleton, discovering her inner 'Rogge' landed a penalty to give Ireland the lead for the first time in the match. The crowd could rise.
"Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good," said a pragmatic Ireland coach Tom Tierney on Ireland's ploughed out 22-14 win.
It was a match that broke unevenly, mangled and dysfunctional in the first 40 minutes as Ireland lost the energy of the home fans.
Will and spirit was swallowed up as Japan’s fiercely simple game of contesting breakdowns, crisp running and a correct idea in their heads took hold, that they could demolish the Irish scrum.
With the vitality dissipating in the stands, hopes also began to fall and as halftime bore down Ireland trailed by 14 points to a team that has not won a match in a World Cup competition for 15 years.
This was not the script. Ireland’s journey all along was to set up against France on Thursday for the winner takes all in the pool, Japan a ritual slaughtering purely for home town consumption.
“We didn’t play well but we won. We’ll review it in the morning. It’s as simple as that,” added Tierney. “Mightily relived. A win is a win but we have a lot of work to do if we are to get a win against the French.”
There was wonder at the vim and vigour of Japan, who were outmuscled and overshadowed by the bigger Irish team. But as Tierney made the half-time adjustments, changed the front row and brought in the more experienced cavalry, the game slowly tuned. The fans were invited back in.
Two tries and Ireland drew level. Alison Miller burst in for the first. Red embers began to flame. Another from Paula Fitzpatrick, the first of her two and Ireland could sense the momentum shift. Stapleton kicked and Ireland took the lead. The home crowd sighed.
Even then the lead was nervously held as Ireland’s pick and go wore down their opponents, the low numbers grinding Japan. It was the pack that unpicked the match.
In the end the Irish players hugged each other as sisters do on hearing that the bad news was actually not so bad at all.
“You have to give great credit to the Japanese,” added Tierney. “They were well able to play and they did put us under pressure. And they didn’t make mistakes.
“They had a lot of possession in that first half. That’s very hard so we’ll be looking to rectify that. You can’t give the French 61 per cent possession. It is going to be a cup final on Thursday night. But we are under no illusions were have to improve in a number of areas.”
As the crowd clapped a weary Japan formed a respectful line on the pitch and reverentially bowed to each player.
Some of the Irish forwards, emotionally drained and physically empty, eschewed the formality and warmly embraced their astonished opponents.
“We have to be a small bit more accurate in key moments,” added Tierney. “Well work hard at that. No, we didn’t perform well. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves for very long. We have to get back on the horse.”
“There is still not a loss beside our name but we have to take the positives out. We are going to build it up for a good crack at the French on Thursday.”
A win it will have to be as France further built their points mountain against Australia. No more equivocal performances from Ireland. The World Cup can start or end this week.