Japan’s destruction at the hands of the Springboks earlier this month didn’t do them justice with regards to the strides they have made during this World Cup cycle, and neither did their nervy opening-day performance of RWC 2019. After looking somewhat stagnant under Jamie Joseph for his first two years in charge, the Brave Blossoms managed a draw with France at the end of 2017, and pushed a shadow English team to the pin of their collar for 55 minutes a year later.
There is a fine line in rugby between giving your opponent too much respect and not giving them enough of it, but it is imperative that Ireland take Japan seriously because we saw what they were capable against a vaunted Tier 1 nation four years ago. Given the six-day turnaround between the Scotland game and this one, it was always likely that Ireland were going to make changes, meaning that the hosts could well have been planning their biggest performance of the year to pull off a shock win.
Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee
Japan regularly have to play bigger sides, and key to their game plan is biding their time and striking at opportune moments through skill, incision and pace. They are well-used to surviving physical onslaughts and then scoring when their opponent has let their guard down. Not unlike Scotland, they are dangerous with turnover ball with crisp passing and good running lines, and the world’s top teams have paid the price for not transitioning from attack to defence quickly enough against them:
They like to put width on the ball in their phase-play attack in general, and their backs run on to the ball from deep, making them difficult to tackle. As a defender, it’s harder to get a hold of a player when they’re running at full-tilt, especially when you’re not running at them head-on.
This often happens with Japan’s wide-wide style of attack; because the opposition players are constantly being dragged from one touch line to the other, they usually have to scramble across the field to make side-on tackles, allowing the Japanese ball carrier to make yards after contact, even if they haven’t gotten over the gain line initially:
Due to the significant size disadvantage they they’re at against most sides that they play, Japan use a lot of animation and decoy runners when carrying through the forwards. If they were to go for straight-up one-out forward carries, they would just get smashed backwards, so they create space and weak shoulders to run at by having multiple forwards shape to carry the ball:
This is where the Irish forwards need to keep their concentration levels up; one misread is all it takes to concede a try and if Japan score early, they will continue to grow in confidence throughout the match and their ability to absorb punishment and stay in games mentally despite being physically fatigued is remarkable.
As you would expect with a pack the size of Japan’s, they are vulnerable in the set-pieces. England put the squeeze on them in the maul last November, and it was a decisive factor in how they ended up pulling away on the scoreboard after a spirited first 50 minutes from Joseph’s side:
Waiting to be awarded a penalty when mauling isn’t always a great idea, even if you’re moving forward. Some referees are prone to making snap decisions around calling a collapsed maul, and Ireland must be wary of this because even though they are relatively small, Japan’s counter-mauling technique is excellent in the sense that they are able to stop a maul after being driven back several metres without doing anything illegal:
This is where Ireland have to be clever with the supremacy that they will probably have in this area; marching Japan backwards in this phase of play isn’t guaranteed to yield a penalty, and Ireland would be better off using the ball to launch a midfield crash from Chris Farrell while the Japanese backline are still retreating, rather than letting the maul become stationary and risking turning over possession.
Overall, Japan’s scrum is their main weakness, and I can’t see them coping with Ireland’s starting or bench front rowers well enough in terms of power or technique for it not to hamstring them badly. That sounds arrogant, but Ireland’s scrum obliterated Italy and Wales in the warm-up games regardless of who was on the field and followed those performances up with a powerful display against Scotland last Sunday, whereas Japan have endured terrible suffering at the coalface recently.
Below, we see England boring in on the Japanese loosehead side last November, which should have been penalised, but Keita Inagaki buckles completely under the pressure coming through from Kyle Sinckler:
It’s cynical from England and Sinckler, and Japan in general can be guilty of being naïve in how they scrummage (in that they always aim to stay straight and square), but it’s a glaringly obvious weak point, and Ireland would be foolish not to capitalise on it.
Back at the start of this month, Japan also had a torrid time in the scrum against South Africa. Below, we see the Springbok front row getting right underneath their Japanese counterparts and then drilling straight through them:
Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx and Frans Malherbe are seasoned players and using their clashes with England and South Africa as samples is unfair on Japan when assessing their scrum, but Ireland’s scrum is a force to be reckoned with, and all of the props in their 31-man squad are destructive, aggressive scrummagers. Short of a miracle, I can’t see the Japanese props not getting turned inside-out by them.
Like with the maul, though, Ireland’s decision-making around when to keep the ball in and continue pushing and when to pick from the base or zip a pass out to the backline will be important. We saw Ireland forcing France into conceding multiple penalties at scrum-time in the Six Nations to the point of being yellow-carded, only to end up turning over possession at the next scrum. Sometimes, less is more, and while maximising any advantage is recommended, pushing it too far can backfire.
All Due Respect
You could argue that Japan may not have progressed as much as they have done over the last four years had it not been for that famous win over South Africa in Brighton, but I think they have been improving in increments for quite some time now. Although the Sunwolves tapered off badly towards the end of this year’s Super Rugby season, they were competitive in half of their fixtures up until Round 12, with the highlight being their 15-point win over a Chiefs side that contained the likes of Brodie Retallick and Damian McKenzie, and the fact that it happened in Waikato makes it all the more impressive.
27 players from the 2019 Sunwolves squad have been selected to play for Japan in this World Cup, and their performances against the best clubs and players that New Zealand, South Africa and Australia have to offer demonstrated that they are not to be taken lightly. I think their error-strewn performance against Russia can be attributed to the occasion getting to them, and now that they have that out of their system, they will be more like the clinical, skillful unit that we have seen over the last few years.
Italy targeted their pool game against Ireland at RWC 2015, and if their lineout hadn’t been a shambles on the day, they probably would have won. Japan might have been focusing on this match in the same manner, and if nothing else, they have pride at stake. Tier 2 nation or not, they won’t allow themselves to be annihilated on their home patch, and this game could be very uncomfortable for Ireland if they don’t have the right mindset going into it.