When reviewing a landslide win, it can be easy to make the mistake of either getting carried away with it and ignoring the standard/quality of the opponent on the day, or disregarding the positives completely for the same reason. A 55-point win over a team who beat Ireland on the world stage two years ago is not to be sniffed at, but it must be kept in mind that Japan were quite poor on Saturday. Their fluid attacking play never got started (partly due to a lineout that malfunctioned badly), and they looked very much like a team who have only played together three times since October 2019.
That doesn’t mean that there is nothing to be taken from this game, though. Ireland have a massive challenge ahead of them this Saturday when the All Blacks come to Dublin, and they deserve to give themselves credit for the dominant performance they produced against the Brave Blossoms (with a view towards how what worked well in that fixture could also work well against New Zealand) while also picking through.
Given how Ireland had narrowly beaten Japan back in July and the infamous loss to them at the last World Cup, it was understandable that there was a lot of talk pre-game about how Jamie Joseph’s side had gotten inside the heads of the Irish players. There’s no way of knowing without being inside the Irish dressing room if that was the motivation for this performance or not, but in any case, Ireland tore into their visitors from the off, with their first order of business being a demolition job at the maul:
As highlighted pre-game, Japan aren’t particularly strong or proficient in this area, but the structure and power output of Ireland’s maul was still hugely impressive. It was a smart decision tactically from Ireland to opt for mauls early in the game as it impacted Japan physically, and put them on the back foot from the off, thereby disrupting their natural rhythm.
Once Ireland had them rocked back on their heels, they wasted no time in throwing the kitchen sink at them in attack. The main talking point after the game has been Ireland’s offload count, with seemingly every player in the squad looking to get their hands free after contact throughout the game. There is risk in playing like this, and it’s much easier to do when you are winning the majority of collisions, but Ireland looked like a different team in terms of their continuity:
In general, Ireland’s attack was something to behold. The 1-3-2-2 shape was probably the most effective we have seen to date, with movement off-the-ball and hard running lines being crucial details, but it must be said that the stellar work of Hugo Keenan as a secondary distributor from full-back made a world of difference:
After emerging as a good (if not great) catch-and-kick fullback for Leinster, Keenan has quietly become a top-class international and a vital cog in this Ireland team. His playmaking seems to be developing with each passing game, and although Jordan Larmour was heralded as the next Ireland 15, Keenan looks to be a mainstay in the position for the next decade.
The other pleasing aspect of Ireland’s attack was their alertness to space on the blind side, especially off the set-pieces. This is a tricky zone for the defence to manage because they are operating with limited numbers, so decision-making is vital, and Ireland repeatedly caught Japanese defenders in two minds when they targeted this space:
There’s no question that Ireland won’t get the freedom to play like this on Saturday, but New Zealand aren’t exactly defensive powerhouses, either. If Ireland can generate any sort of front-foot ball, and then flummox them with their attacking patterns and lines of running, then there’s no reason why they can’t develop a similar level of fluidity with ball-in-hand.
Good as they were on the day, Ireland weren’t perfect, and there were some early handling errors that could have been costly against a team who normally profit from turnover ball. It was Ireland’s first outing since the summer so they do deserve some slack, but the below handling errors could easily have seen them concede five-pointers:
Ireland won’t get away with fundamental mistakes like this against New Zealand, and even if these chances had been capitalised on by Japan, it could have taken the sting out of them completely. The All Blacks are bound to score two or three tries at some stage in the game anyway, so handing them a lead early on will essentially end the game as a contest before it even gets going.
There was also the usual 15-minute period in the game where Ireland brought unnecessary pressure on themselves by conceding cheap penalties at the breakdown:
Every team has a purple patch (even when they are losing badly) but Ireland gave Japan what could have been very costly access points deep in their own half in the above clips. Japan didn’t capitalise on all of them, but New Zealand certainly will, so improved discipline on the floor will be one of Ireland’s major work-ons in the week ahead.
Harbingers Of Doom
It’s fair to say that this Saturday’s clash with the All Blacks is going to be the sternest test of Andy Farrell’s credentials of a head coach yet. Had COVID not struck, Ireland would have faced southern hemisphere opposition a couple of times under his stewardship by now, but as it stands, this will be their first meeting with a Rugby Championship opponent since Ian Foster’s side unceremoniously dumped Ireland out of RWC 2019 at the quarter-final stages.
Despite there being a valid point that the victory over Japan didn’t provide Ireland with a real test ahead of this Saturday, it would have been a lot worse if Ireland stuttered to an unconvincing win. They can only play what’s in front of them, and Saturday’s match was a fixture that they got everything that they needed from. Their intensity and intent to play to the maximum of their ability was a clear indicator that they were using the match to gear up for the All Blacks (a wise move on Farrell’s part), but time will tell if it is enough to make Ireland competitive this weekend.