Sporting upsets: Japan light the blue touch paper as Ireland slowly wilt

Brave Blossoms’ win sparks beginning of the end for Schmidt’s side and inspires a nation

Japan celebrate their win over Ireland. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Japan celebrate their win over Ireland. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

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Relive Irish misery and Japanese joy in reverse. Last year provided a fascinating study in how everything can go wrong when a sports team is unequipped to handle the psychological rigours of life on the mountain top.

Japan’s victory can be traced back to a February morning in leafy Surrey where Japan coaches Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown stood alongside Eddie Jones at Pennyhill Park, gratefully devouring the English game plan that would expose Joe Schmidt’s Ireland.

England’s destructive display in Dublin a few days later was the beginning of a tortuous downward spiral that became the sixth and final year of Schmidt’s ground breaking watch over Irish rugby.

Afterwards, amidst a transcendent night for the host nation, Joseph entered the media room to further twist the knife.

“We’ve been preparing for this game for a hell of a lot longer than the Irish have,” said the Kiwi. “I said to the players: ‘We’ve been focusing on today basically for the last year and probably subconsciously for the last three years, and Ireland have been thinking about us since Monday.’”

Japan coach Jamie Joseph and attack coach Tony Brown with Joe Schmidt ahead of kick-off. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Japan coach Jamie Joseph and attack coach Tony Brown with Joe Schmidt ahead of kick-off. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Eventually the cliché will catch you cold. The Ireland camp fed the press the same line ad nauseam. Everyone knows the ‘one game at a time’ mantra is a straight bat, a boring answer to avoid controversy, but Joseph allowed the platitude to get lost in translation and flipped it into a motivational tool.

“When we got ahead the Irish tried to take us on physically and I think emotionally we were prepared for that,” he added, telling no word of a lie.

The narrative cannot be rewritten; brittle Ireland came unstuck, unable to recover from a six-day turnaround after beating Scotland in typically attritional manner. Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery were not fit enough to start with Carbery unleashed for the last 20 minutes but, one year later, his ankle has still not healed.

In the mixed zone the 23-year-old was asked about the shock ending when he kicked the ball dead from behind Ireland’s try line: ‘Not think the pack could march 100 metres down field and secure a draw?’

“I definitely thought we could have but when the ball came to me they were up in my face,” Carbery replied. “I didn’t want to risk it with a short kick or anything like that and concede [possession]. I haven’t looked back at it yet but at the time I thought it was the right option.”

The subtext was Carlos Spencer - the legendary Auckland Blue once ran from his dead ball area before finishing an insane sequence 100 metres down field - but when Carbery glanced around he only saw flushed faces and dark green jerseys drenched by sweat inside a stadium up a steep hill overlooking the Shizuoka prefecture.

Japan celebrate at the final whistle after their 19-12 win over Ireland. Photogaph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Japan celebrate at the final whistle after their 19-12 win over Ireland. Photogaph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Ireland were camped on their own line ever since Jordan Larmour’s loose pass was intercepted by Kenki Fukuoka - the giant killer himself - who hared off on a 60-metre dash for glory.

The hounds gave chase. Larmour began tightening up as Fukuoka accelerated but a dramatic lunge by Keith Earls saw all three men tumble over each other, landing in a heap five metres out.

This was their Italia ‘90 moment happening in real time

With 79.55 on the clock Tadhg Beirne grabbed back possession and Dave Kilcoyne charged into contact as the gong sounded. Conor Murray zipped a pass to Carbery but none of his options - a speculative right to left punt pass, a risky chip - would deliver victory.

That he saw no alternative to protecting a bonus point defeat to Japan reflected how far the pre-tournament number one team in the world had fallen.

Calamity reigned. On 57 minutes, with Ireland clinging to a 12-9 lead, CJ Stander spun off a scrum and popped a pass for Chris Farrell who turned into his Munster teammate. Angus Gardner signalled for accidental offside and a Japan put-in deep in the Irish 22.

Everyone could sense what was coming. This was their Italia ‘90 moment happening in real time. Fumiaki Tanaka arrived at scrumhalf to send Ryoto Nakamura barrelling into Garry Ringrose and Farrell, who did not recover. Another charge, by Lomano Lemeki, forced the green line of defenders onto their whitewash.

CJ Stander with Japan’s Michael Leitch and Pieter Labuschagne. Photograph: Jayne Russell/Inpho
CJ Stander with Japan’s Michael Leitch and Pieter Labuschagne. Photograph: Jayne Russell/Inpho

Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson and Rhys Ruddock were dragged into desperate resistance to halt Michael Leitch. The light footed Tanaka switched the point of attack once more as Kazuki Himeno was somehow stopped by Earls. The winger instantly hopped up and onside without touching or impeding anyone.

“Advantage. Offside. Number 14,” said Gardner somehow fingering Earls.

It did not matter but the advantage prompted Nakamura’s skip pass, which took out Murray and Earls, forcing Rob Kearney into a man and ball tackle on Tim Lafaele, who offloaded for Fukuoka to scamper over. Yu Tamura’s clean strike from the far left made it 16-12. There was 30 minutes remaining but Ireland were visibly shattered while the Brave Blossoms surged from the waves of energy rolling down from their delirious crowd.

Inside the Ecopa you knew something magical was happening

It was a scrum on 34 minutes that turned the usually reserved locals into a weapon. Inside the Ecopa you knew something magical was happening. Ireland led 12-6 when Murray fed the ball in and his pack got the initial surge but all the Australian referee saw was the Japanese frontrow emerging from beneath a disengaged Cian Healy.

“Their loosehead prop steps out, so they try to attack from the side,” the Japan camp had warned, planting a seed in Gardner’s brain.

Penalty. The scene ended with Leitch and Lappies Labuschange, the Fijian and Afrikaner co-captains, wrestling the ball from an isolated CJ Stander. The rest of the Irish pack had politely retreated. The rout still seemed impossible but the mood had irrevocably changed as both Japanese props were embraced by turbocharged teammates.

Ireland come under pressure at scrum time during their defeat to Japan. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Ireland come under pressure at scrum time during their defeat to Japan. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Japan had found their mojo. Understandably, it took Jack Carty several months to rediscover his. The 27-year-old’s first ever competitive Test start began as well as he could have hoped with flashes of his natural footballing ability creating tries for Ringrose and Kearney.

It was the great unknown that exposed him; Carty had never sat in the commander’s chair for such a big game. He was not alone. Every weakness showed as desperation became a disease that spread like wildfire. With Rory Best and Peter O’Mahony focusing on survival in the trenches, the officer class went missing on a night that Japanese sport can cherish forever.

Being on the receiving end of a sporting upset that reverberated around the globe would make you want to hop on a bullet train to anywhere. Ireland ended up on Rokko Island, quickly rebranded Shutter Island by the travelling circus, while Japan charted a perilous route into Typhoon Hagibis’ path of destruction. This became the only adventure worth reliving. It saved the World Cup.

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