Rugby World Cup: Ireland must be wary against a Japan side under very little pressure
Hosts can swing from the hip with opportunities to come against Samoa and Scotland
Kick-off: 4.45pm local time, 8.15am Irish time, Saturday. Venue: Ecopa Stadium, Shizuoka. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will start at 7.30am. On TV: Live on RTÉ, Eir Sport and and ITV.
If their respective opening wins are taken as a guideline, then Ireland should assume outright leadership of Pool A after this early summit meeting. But they could well prove misleading yardsticks.
Japan were indebted to the opportunism of right-winger Kotaro Matsushima against Russia, but their nervousness was entirely understandable when you consider they were awarded this tournament in May 2009, and the draw was made in May 2017. That’s some build up.
They were in something of a no-win situation. Now they have that win under their belts, and as underdogs against the number two ranked team, they can swing more freely from the hip, also knowing that their chance of reaching the quarter-finals can still depend on their games against Samoa and Scotland. The Brave Blossoms have also had an extra two days of preparation.
Ireland have won all seven matches between the countries, the closest (32-16) being the first of two World Cup meetings in 1991 at Lansdowne Road.
The last six margins have all been in excess of 20 points and the bookies make Ireland 21-point favourites, but Japan may well prove more competitive than that.
Nor do Ireland have a good record against hosts in World Cups, losing all four if one includes Scotland as co-hosts in 1991. They lost in the 1987 quarter-finals against co-hosts Australia, and in the pool stages against the same opponents in 2003 and against France in 2007.
No wonder therefore that Ireland have ultimately retained the pack en bloc which did such a number on the Scots last Sunday. For sure, a re-enactment of that set-piece authority, strong mauling and clinical execution, in the first 25 minutes at any rate, would provide the ideal foundations.
Japan’s head coach Jamie Joseph most probably knows as much, hence making three of the four changes in personnel up front.
That Japan beat the Springboks and won three matches four years ago, becoming the first team not to qualify in doing so, should inspire them, and also shows how dangerous they can be when inspired.
All we control is what we deliver on the pitch and we’ll go out and try to deliver as best we can
Joseph, who has said his players will need to play the game of their lives, rowed back a little on the comments made by their 23-year-old uncapped prop Yuzuke Kizu that Cian Healy scrummaged illegally – from the outside in.
But only a little.
“I think first thing, Kizu is a young man, probably his first media experience, so that would be the first thing around Kizu. We’re coming up against a very strong scrum, yes, at times they are illegal, but at all times they are a very strong scrum.”
Not surprisingly, Kizu’s comments grated with Schmidt.
“It’s hard to step out when you’ve got your right shoulder out and you’re nice and square. I think we’ll be probably, if not the least, one of the least penalised scrums in international rugby. I think we do our very best to scrum square. We don’t step left,” said Schmidt. “It will probably provide a little motivation for Cian when it comes to the game on Saturday.”
He also admitted to being annoyed and frustrated at last Sunday’s penalty count of 7-6 against Ireland, “considering that a lot of what we did we felt we were kind of on top in that game”.
“Obviously last time we had Angus [Gardner, Saturday’s referee] it wasn’t great for us,” he added, in reference to the game in Cardiff last March.
“We didn’t play particularly well but we didn’t feel we got a lot of the rub of the green from Angus either.” Citing one scrum early on when Ireland were not rewarded, and others when Wales were “was incredibly frustrating”.
Noting they are very much a team of four, Schmidt concluded: “They [officials] have been given a stir up from World Rugby and I know when these players that I work with get a stir up, they come out and they’re very focused the next outing. So we’d have confidence that the officials are going to be good this weekend across the board.”
Save for one loose lineout which Andrew Porter rescued (“It was probably unusual for us to use Andrew Porter as a lineout option”) Schmidt could find little fault with the set-pieces against Scotland, but expressed the hope that Ireland will be “a little bit better in the air” and play with more width. “That will depend a little bit on conditions, but the expectation is that the conditions are going to be better.”
Japan have made little secret of their intention to stop the momentum of Ireland’s forward carriers by double tackling them, and to attack them on the edges. And Schmidt agrees that this occasion is more likely to inspire Japan than weight them down.
“They’ve spent something like 180-200 days in camp, they invested a lot of time in each other to create the combinations that they so very effectively have shown.
“Maybe they were a little below par against Russia, by their standards in their ball-transfer and accuracy, but we know that they can be flicked around,” said Schmidt, citing their eight-day turnaround.
“But, it’s not something we’re too distracted by. All we control is what we deliver on the pitch and we’ll go out and try to deliver as best we can this Saturday just like we would if we were at home. That’s what we can best control.”
It’s going to be some occasions, but in their pack, particularly, and also throughout a strong matchday squad, Ireland do have the ability to control enough of this game, and take a firm grip on this pool.
JAPAN: Ryohei Yamanaka; Kotaro Matsushima, Timothy Lafaele, Ryoto Nakamura, Will Tupou; Yu Tamura, Yutaka Nagare; Keita Inagaki, Shota Horie, Jiwon Koo; Luke Thompson, James Moore; Kazuki Himeno, Pieter Labuschagne, Amanaki Lelei Mafi.
Replacements: Atsushi Sakate, Isileli Nakajima, Asaeli Ai Valu, Wimpie van der Walt, Michael Leitch, Fumiaki Tanaka, Rikiya Matsuda, Lomano Lemeki.
IRELAND: Rob Kearney (Leinster); Keith Earls (Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Chris Farrell (Munster), Jacob Stockdale (Ulster); Jack Carty (Connacht), Conor Murray (Munster); Cian Healy (Leinster), Rory Best (Ulster, capt), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Iain Henderson (Ulster), James Ryan (Leinster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster).
Replacements: Seán Cronin (Leinster), Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Andrew Porter (Leinster), Tadhg Beirne (Munster), Rhys Ruddock (Leinster), Luke McGrath (Leinster), Joey Carbery (Munster), Jordan Larmour (Leinster).
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia).
Overall head to head: Played 7, Japan 0 wins, Ireland 7 wins.
Five-game formguide – Japan: (PNC) Won 34-21 v Fiji (Kamaishi). (PNC) Won 41-7 v Tonga (Osaka). (PNC) W 34-20 v USA (Suva). Lost 7-41 v South Africa (Kumagaya). (RWC) Won 30-10 v Russia (Tokyo).
Ireland: Won 29-10 v Italy (Dublin). Lost 15-57 v England (London). Won 22-17 v Wales (Cardiff). Won 19-10 (Dublin). RWC Won 27-3 v Scotland (Yokohama).
Betting: 8/1 Japan, 45/1 Draw, 1/16 Ireland. Handicap odds (Japan + 21 pts) 10/11 Japan, 22/1 Draw, 10/11 Ireland.
Forecast: Ireland to win.