Hard Sun

Timothy Lafaele scores a try 3/7/2021
Too Close For Comfort: Timothy Lafaele barges through the Irish defence back in July. Ireland’s hard-fought victory over Japan a few months ago was torturous to watch as a supporter and undoubtedly nerve-wracking for the players. It is worth mentioning that they were without several star players due to the British & Irish Lions tour/enforced rest periods, but the team they put out was the best one available to them. A more convincing performance will be needed this weekend, though, if they are to give themselves momentum for their tilt at the All Blacks next week.

While Ireland’s team selection and manner of victory over the US back in July generated a lot of positive energy around them from fans and the media, it’s fair to say that the Japan game had the opposite effect. Andy Farrell’s decision to pick the most experienced side available to him was nowhere near vindicated by the scoreline, but what seemed to rankle more was the tactics Ireland chose to employ.

The latter makes sense in hindsight; Ireland played into Japan’s hands at RWC 2019 by throwing more loose passes and offloads than they had done previously under Joe Schmidt, so buttoning up and aiming for kicks/set-pieces/one-out carries moved the game away from Japan’s area of comfort: high-tempo, offloading rugby. It was more their error count that made life difficult for Ireland on the day, and even though they could have run away with the game had their execution been better at times, it’s worth looking at exactly what they did right and wrong.

Donations

Japan are a team who thrive on turnover ball because it suits their philosophy perfectly; their skills are superb, and when their opponent knocks the ball on, their players are quick to react and pounce on it and adept at moving it wide immediately. Ireland gave them far too much motivation by spilling the ball in contact time and time again, and the visitors didn’t need a second invitation:

The Brave Blossoms aren’t an overly aggressive or effective defensive outfit, so Ireland can’t blame line speed or intensity in the tackle for their clumsiness. They didn’t seem to be at the right pitch in terms of their concentration in most areas, and this was also evident in how they got their wires crossed when claiming restarts and their messy breakdown work:

Add in some bad defensive misreads and lineout flubs, and you have an error count that nearly cost Ireland the game. There is no doubt that Andy Farrell read Ireland the riot act after that fixture, and the wholesale changes to his squad the following week against the US may have been an immediate reaction to the unimpressive result.

That being said, a similar type of performance will produce the same deflating effect, something Ireland could do without going into a clash with New Zealand next weekend. Farrell has made no secret of the fact that he and his coaching ticket are trying to move away from the heavily-scrutinised video analysis of the Joe Schmidt era, but a review of the finer details of their performance against Japan would go a long way towards ensuring that they are cohesive in everything that they do this Saturday.

Kicking To Unsettle

While Japan are lethal on the counter-attack, they don’t look all that comfortable when fielding contestable kicks. Their backfield coverage can be uneven at times, and some of their players are hesitant in this facet of the game, standing still waiting for the ball to come to them as opposed to commanding the air, or else mistiming their run on to the ball when they do decide to go for it:

If Ireland can repeatedly target Japan in this area, it should provide them with large territorial gains, as well as draining the visitors’ confidence, but the execution of this tactic needs to be near-perfect or else it will backfire on them.

Some of Ireland’s kicking out of hand back in July was inaccurate, while the chase wasn’t always of the requisite quality. Japan wasted no time in capitalising on these opportunities, running the ball back to good effect, or setting up a quick ruck to attack from while Ireland’s defensive line was in the process of reorganising:

It must be taken into account that Joey Carbery wasn’t long back from a long injury period in that fixture, so he can be forgiven for being rusty, and both Jacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour hadn’t been regular starters for Ireland since the previous year. However, if there isn’t an improvement in this department, Ireland will just be inviting Japan to counter-attack, something that they struggled to deal with back in July.

Bulldozer

Despite making consistent strides over the last ten years, and arguably becoming at least a Tier 1.5 nation, Japan are still quite vulnerable to teams going after them up front. When Ireland did achieve fluidity in attack in the second half of their last clash with Jamie Joseph’s team, the Japanese forwards found it challenging to put some of Ireland’s more dynamic ball-carriers to ground:

Given the pack that Andy Farrell has selected, it is likely that Ireland will repeat the dose, with probably less two-out passing than we have seen from them recently in order to eke out as much of a physical advantage as possible close to the ruck.

Maul defence was a serious issue for Japan, too, with Ireland making ground in this area with ease:

Tadhg Beirne’s absence from the squad back in July due to Lions honours meant that Ireland were short of their most potent jackal threat, and his inclusion in the starting XV this weekend all but guarantees an increase in the number of breakdown penalties that will be awarded to them, so they should have plenty of maul opportunities.

Establishing physical dominance will only be half the battle for Ireland, though, with regards to being effective with ball-in-hand. Japan can score several tries off limited possession, so Ireland will need to do the same, and this is where their option-taking when they are going through the phases will need to be of a high standard.

There were numerous moments during the summer Test where Ireland, having gotten themselves on the front foot with a dominant carry, chose to crash it up again when there was space further out:

Again, it is worth noting that Carbery’s long spell on the sidelines was bound to have affected his feel for the game, but there was space at the edges further out in the above examples, and Japan’s defence in that part of the field is nothing to write home about. Ireland were probably trying to work the Japanese forwards early on to sap their energy to set up a late wide-wide surge, but if there is a line-break on in the 15-metre channel, then the chance needs to be taken.

Banishing The Ghosts Of Fukuroi

When Ireland last encountered Japan, you got the impression that the defeat to them at RWC 2019 was weighing heavily on their minds. Their performance was tentative and distracted in places, and with 8 of their matchday 23 in that fixture having featured in the shock World Cup loss, you can understand how a fear of losing and drawing the ire of supporters and the media again could have impacted their performance.

I don’t think Ireland took Japan lightly in that tournament; they were on a downward slope in terms of form, Japan had home advantage, and injury reshuffles in the backline late in the week ruled out any sort of cohesion in attack. It’s high time Ireland put that painful memory behind them, and rather than seeing Japan as a walkover (which they certainly aren’t anymore) or be afraid of their undoubted talent, they should instead wipe the slate clean and asses their opponent for what they are: an opponent who is dangerous and deserving of respect, but with some obvious exploitable weaknesses.

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