The Brave Blossoms shock Ireland with a famous 19-12 home win that left Ireland looking shocked and exhausted.
There are many excuses for the loss. The conditions were horrible, “like playing in a sauna”, the ball was slippy, the referee didn’t allow much defensive rucking, we only had a six day turnaround, the curse of Ireland always losing to the host nation. But the Japanese played a full eighty minute shift and we could not. They out-lasted us and deserved the win.
Rory Best is playing well, but his line out throwing was not what it should have been. We lost possession multiple times in their twenty-two and simply could not get any points on the board for three quarters of the game.
James Ryan looked exhausted in the last five or ten minutes. Repeatedly he was given the ball and asked to carry, but you could see that he could simply not ask his leg muscles to do what they normally do. He was clearly out of gas, looking surprised when he got the ball.
Ireland started the game brightly, with two tries in the first quarter, and it felt like the host nation, who outnumbered the Irish by four to one, would have a rough night. But they rallied well and began to claw their way back into the match.
The energy that they brought to attack was fantastic. They have been waiting and planning for this game for at least twelve months. They look like they are now on track to top the group, a difficult game against Scotland notwithstanding, and could come up against South Africa in the quarter finals.
This would be a wonderful game to witness. In the last World Cup Japan surprised The Springboks to a famous victory in the first round of the competition. They will fancy their chances, especially with the conditions likely to remain the same going into early October.
South Africa were excellent during the first quarter of their game against New Zealand, but faded. Is there a parallel to the strong Irish performance in the first twenty minutes, after which they slipped down the slope, falling off the cliff in the last ten minutes? Jamie George, Japanese manager, will be eyeing that game with enthusiasm.
What do Ireland do now? We have another short turnaround before playing Russia on Thursday. It is hard to imagine that many of the starters yesterday will be selected for that game; it is too soon and they will need recovery time. But the game is now a dangerous banana peel. Loose or draw and we may struggle to get out of the pool. Fail to get both bonus points could leave us watching the final match of the pool nervously from the sidelines.
It is hard to imagine the Russians beating us. But there is now a real fear that this is going to be a nightmare of a World Cup. At best we will qualify from the pool and face the All Blacks in the quarter final (in my opinion, this may be easier than facing the Springboks!) and with our record against them, losing twenty-eight to two with a single draw, it may appear that we are in for an early flight home no matter what happens.
The way the fixtures pan out, Ireland play their last pool game against Samoa on Saturday 12th October. Japan and Scotland meet the next day, and will have full knowledge of what they need to do to get a result.
It is hard to justify my statement above about New Zealand being a better target than the South Africa; it is my gut feeling. We have beaten both potential opponents in recent years, but I feel our defensive, possession based game is better suited to playing the former. South Africa may simply out muscle us, dominating set pieces.
If we beat Russia and Samoa with bonus points, then we will be guaranteed second position in the pool on sixteen points. Scotland can only get to fifteen from three games. Samoa (let’s assume they will be beaten by us) will also not be able to catch us. That means that pool qualification is still within our own hands. Isn’t that some sort of silver lining?
But fail to secure maximum points from both games could leave us with a nervous wait for the final game. It is mathematically possible for both Scotland and Japan to qualify ahead of us.
Don’t forget Samoa. They have only played once and will have something to say before the end of the pool stages. It is hard to see them being able to out-last Japan, but they have something to say about final positions when they play Scotland on Monday.
Ireland will lick their wounds over this extremely short turnaround. Joe Schmidt should not be seriously worried about playing the Russians, but I suspect he will keep a few of the first line starters in the match day squad to ensure there are no more slip ups. Losing will mean the likely end to our participation as a contender in the competition. It is unthinkable.