Rugby World Cup: Japan pitch perfect as Ireland strike bum note
Host nation take full advantage as Ireland let standards drop in Shizuoka
Japan players celebrate victory after the final whistle of the Pool A game against Ireland at the Ecopa stadium in Shizuoka. Photograph: Adam Davy/PA Wire
As feared, the mental and emotional dynamics of this game were in sharp contrast to last week’s respective opening wins over Russia and Scotland. Compared to that nervy, no-win opening night, the pressure was off Japan and, swinging from the hip, they rode the crest of a wave of excitable support inside a stadium where the atmosphere was more akin to a Take That concert.
As Jamie Joseph noted afterwards, they had been building toward this game for over two years, whereas after targeting the Scotland game for the same period, Ireland had six days.
Japan’s body language throughout was of a team which played with more enthusiasm, enjoyment, energy and ambition. This was manifest on both sides of the ball.
In defence they brought significantly more line speed and, as promised, hunted and tackle in pairs, one going low, the other high. In attack, they passed the ball more and played with greater width. Cometh the hour, their match-winning try was an inevitable byproduct, albeit Ireland’s defence was too narrow.
Ireland actually played quite well for the opening half hour or so, subduing Japan’s spirited start to impose their game and earn a 12-3 led through two Jack Carty try assists when cleverly using penalty advantages.
An overthrown lineout inside half-way by Rory Best was the first momentum shifter, as his skilful and dynamic opposite number in perpetual motion, Shota Horie, charged onto the ball and Michael Leitch made his first of many telling contributions in the build-up to Yo Tamura trimming the lead by three points.
Another came soon after when the Irish scrum looked to engineer a penalty to restore their two-score advantage, with the ball at CJ Stander’s feet, but instead it splintered off its axis as Japan kept low and strong.
Cue backslapping, high fives, chest pumping, and the roar which greeted that moment was only eclipsed by those for Kenki Fukuoka’s try and the full-time whistle. Thereafter the game was played to an incessant din and the rhythmic clapping which accompanied chants of ‘Ja-pan, Ja-pan’.
Ireland’s set-pieces fell off the high standards of a week before, while Japan’s defensive maul hardly conceded an inch, just like their defence. Missing 18 tackles compared to six a week previously, Ireland didn’t have the same defensive line speed as in the two Welsh games or against Scotland.
The warning signs had been there in the opening quarter, notably when Tadhg Furlong pushed up in the middle of the pitch but Cian Healy, hanging back and wide, became disconnected. In this and much else, such as the deep alignment for restart receptions, Ireland did not appear to have a good half-time.
Early in the second half, from Japan’s recycle five metres inside their own half, the Irish defence drifted and backed off, before the excellent Kazuki Himeno was eventually brought down by Peter O’Mahony 12 metres inside the Irish half.
Of course, it’s easy in the cheap seats. Whether or not the heat and humidity compounded the six-day turnaround, for an unchanged pack particularly, certainly while there was a nice breeze high up in the stands, down on pitch side it was more like a sauna.
The Irish players looked to be blowing heavier even as Rob Kearney’s 20th-minute try was being confirmed by video replays. Players who performed strongly in the first half-hour, like O’Mahony and Iain Henderson, faded.
On the plus side, Garry Ringrose was back to his attacking best, James Ryan kept going like only he can, as did Stander and Keith Earls, and to their credit Ireland actually dug deep to stem the tide to give themselves promising and hard-earned positions.
Carty had played well for the first 50 or so minutes, until run over a couple of times and kicking loosely once. A rusty Joey Carbery played a little too deep to begin with before running onto the ball, but their execution let them down before, finally, Jordan Larmour’s pass was picked of by Fukuoka, leaving Ireland indebted to Earls for what could be a crucial bonus point.
Also it seemed as if referee Angus Gardner became a little swept away in the occasion. In a 9-3 penalty count, the tally at the breakdown was 5-2 even though their entry gate included two side doors as well and, risibly, it was 3-0 for offsides. He seemed to be managing Japan, and refereeing Ireland.
But in all of this, Japan’s defending kept growing in energy. Scotland be warned. The Brave Blossoms will have some momentum in this pool now.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 14 mins: Ringrose try 0-5; 17: Tamura pen 3-5; 21: Kearney try, Carty con 3-12; 34: Tamura pen 6-12; 40: Tamura pen 9-12; (half-time 9-12); 57: Fukuoka try, Tamura con 16-12; 72: Tamura pen 19-12.
JAPAN: Ryohei Yamanaka; Kotaro Matsushima, Timothy Lafaele, Ryoto Nakamura, Lomano Lava Lemeki; Yu Tamura, Yutaka Nagare; Keita Inagaki, Shota Horie, Jiwon Koo; Luke Thompson, James Moore; Kazuki Himeno, Pieter Labuschagne (capt), Amanaki Lelei Mafi.
Replacements: Michael Leitch for Mafi (31 mins), Kenki Fukuoka for Yamanaka (50), Asaeli Ai Valu for Koo (54), Fumiaki Tanaka for Nagare (57), Isileli Nakajima for Inagaki, Wimpie van der Walt for Thomson (both 64). Not used: Atsushi Sakate, Rikiya Matsuda.
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 (einster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster).
Replacements: Dave Kilcoyne (Munster) for Healy (46 mins), Andrew Porter (Leinster) for Furlong (46-54 and 64), Rhys Ruddock (Leinster) for O’Mahony (54), Seán Cronin (Leinster) for Best (64), Joey Carbery (Munster) for Carty, Jordan Larmour (Leinster) (both 61), Tadhg Beirne (Munster) for (66), Luke McGrath (Leinster) for Kearney (69).
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia).