Before going into the ins and outs of why Ireland lost today, Japan deserve enormous praise for pulling off an unthinkable win over a team who were ranked second in the world. Just like in 2015, they have lit up the tournament with a stunning victory, and the Tier 2 label is becoming less and less fitting for them every time they participate in the global competition. Ireland have much soul-searching to do in the aftermath of this devastating loss, but it would be in bad spirit to try and take away from what Japan have accomplished.
Despite scoring two tries in the first quarter, Ireland appeared to be unsettled from the off. As expected, Japan went wide-wide in attack, and Ireland’s plan to stand off them in order to cover the space out wide backfired. Japan made massive gains whenever they moved the ball into the 15-metre channel, with slick handling and inventive running lines, and Ireland spent most of the game back-pedalling. This wasn’t helped by the fact that Ireland were prone to throwing loose offloads in their early periods of possession, and rather than burning out as they usually do, Japan stayed the course and played with courage and energy right to the death.
When Joe Schmidt selected the strongest team available to him, I thought it was a bad move at first; the Scotland match was an incredibly energy-sapping affair, and squad rotation would allow Ireland’s starters a chance to rest before bigger challenges. It was only when other people suggested it to me that I came around to the idea that picking so many first-choice players was a sign of respect to the home nation, and a signal that Ireland weren’t going to take the foot off the gas.
Upon reflection, changes would have been better as Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, CJ Stander and Conor Murray looked spent from around the 30-minute mark. That’s easy to say looking back, and wholesale changes could have motivated Japan further, but the six-day turnaround that Ireland had for this game was a significant factor in my view, especially when you consider that they had beaten Scotland by grinding them down in wet conditions.
Ireland can’t complain because Tier 1 nations often get the rub of the green with regards to scheduling at World Cups, but I do think that fatigue played a part in Ireland’s performance. Tiredness leads to lower concentration levels, which in turn leads to mistakes, and we saw innumerable uncharacteristic errors from Ireland, including knock-ons, infringements at the breakdown/ruck and players getting their body positioning wrong going into contact. The accidental offside between CJ Stander and Chris Farrell a few metres out from their own try line was a prime example of Ireland’s players switching off mentally, and these inaccuracies dogged them all match.
A lot of fingers have been pointed at Angus Gardner, and as unsavoury as ref-whinging is, it’s hard to argue that his officiating didn’t affect the result. His one-eyed referring of the offside line meant that Ireland were pinged repeatedly when Japan were in possession but struggled to build any attacking sets of their own, and he was quicker to raise his arm for an advantage when Irish players attempted to jackal over the ball and come in from the side than he was when Jamie Joseph’s players did the same.
That being said, good teams are able to manage poor referees and not let erroneous adjudication decide the outcome of the game and Ireland didn’t do that. It was noticeable that Peter O’Mahony was called ashore as soon as he got on Gardner’s bad side, and Ireland’s manner with referees will have to be rectified from here on out. There are uncontrollables in any sport, and if Ireland are to recover from this setback, they need to remember how to roll with the punches.
Although Jack Carty started well, he couldn’t put his stamp on proceedings as the clock ticked on, and this is where Johnny Sexton was badly missed. His ability to put steeplers deep in the opposition half is a vital cog in what Ireland do, and the value of it is only acknowledged when it’s missing. Carty was guilty of kicking too long, but Ireland’s game plan seemed to be to hold on to the ball for multiple phases and kick deep when they did put boot to ball, and while that was effective against a Scottish side who they had the measure of in defence, it was ill-advised against Japan.
Scotland’s pack couldn’t cope with Ireland’s physicality, but Japan tackled in numbers and Ireland’s one-out carries didn’t pack the same punch that they did in Yokohama, and the lack of sniping from Conor Murray (when there were clear opportunities to do so) made predicting when Ireland were going to go through the forwards or shift the ball wide relatively straightforward. What is puzzling about the tactics used by Ireland is that the hosts were vulnerable under the high ball in their opening-day fixture against Russia, and the one contestable box-kick that Ireland did produce in the game resulted in a knock-on from Ryohei Yamanaka.
Outside of a confusing strategy from Ireland, their scrum and lineout maul didn’t go according to plan. A penalty concession at the coalface before half-time was a major turning point, and their maul wasn’t the potent attacking weapon that they might have hoped. Add in some miscued throws from Best in the second 40, and what you have is two malfunctioning set-pieces from Ireland, which in turn heaped more pressure on them.
As mentioned earlier, saying that Schmidt should have picked player X instead of player Y is easy with the benefit of hindsight, but Jean Kleyn’s selection could have improved Ireland’s scrum, lineout and maul immeasurably. Having a 6’8” front-jumper specialist would have made life easier for Ireland’s hookers and the ballast he provides would have given them extra heft in the scrum and maul. These are the reasons why he was elected ahead of Devin Toner, so for him to go unused against a team who are traditionally weak in these areas was strange.
After losing their first game of the tournament, getting knocked over by Japan is the next worst thing that could have happened to Ireland. Obviously, getting beaten by Russia or Samoa would be worse, but this is not what Ireland needed or wanted. Japan deserve full credit for what they achieved today, and shock victories are invaluable in terms of lighting up competitions and growing the game, but from an Irish perspective, it’s difficult to see the positives.
Schmidt and his charges have dug a hole for themselves, and are now under pressure to rack up massive scores in their remaining pool fixtures, whereas if they had beaten Japan, four tries against both Russia and Samoa would have been enough. They are also depending on Scotland to beat Japan, which on the basis of what we have seen from those two teams thus far, seems 50/50.
Japan could be emotionally spent after today and not collect themselves in time for what is now an important clash with Gregor Townsend’s side, or they could take huge heart from upsetting Ireland and continue to build as the weeks go by. Scotland, on the other hand, could demonstrate that their abysmal performance against Ireland was an aberration and grow into the competition or they could circle the drain after being crushed in their first game.
Relying on these things to go your way is not something anyone could have envisaged for Ireland, but that is where they now find themselves. Schmidt-coached teams can never be accused of complacency because of his exacting, demanding nature, but Ireland have shot themselves in the foot by not pushing on after going into a nine-point lead against a side who they hockeyed twice in a row in 2017. They could well muster a serious fightback to top their pool, but it’s all uphill from here.