I’ll be honest – I didn’t think they’d be able to do it. I thought Ireland would pull away and win by 20+ points plus. I was wrong. We’ll get to where I was wrong later but first, let’s get to the aftermath of the game. What does it all mean? In context, this is one of the worst results in Ireland’s recent rugby history. Sure, Japan were really good, came in with a plan and, as I said, more than deserved this win, but I believed – and still believe – that Ireland should be beating them 10 times out of 10. Maybe that’s hubris. It probably is.
Do I think that Ireland underestimated Japan? Perhaps, perhaps not. I can’t really account for what the squad were thinking in the build-up to this game. Nobody outside the group can, no matter how angry they seem. I mean, it’s certainly possible, and really easy to accuse them of in the aftermath of a loss like this, but I’m not sure. The team selection certainly doesn’t indicate that Ireland were looking too far beyond this game but how can we account for such a chronic underperformance?
We can look at the referee Angus Gardner and the, let’s call it generous refereeing he afforded Japan for much of this game, but none of that will have or should have been a surprise. Gardner, like a lot of refs, tend to work towards an upset and it was on Ireland from the beginning of this game to take him out of the result.
We started well enough in that regard.
This is just a nice example of a well-worked Irish strike off a ruck.
A tight pod of forwards drags the Japanese fringe defenders around and creates a gap for Ringrose to attack against the grain. This created a good point for Ireland to attack narrowly, with tempo.
These small games were the way to get at Japan. They lost metres and men as Ireland came around the corner. There are no missed tackles from Japan here but we are dragging them across the field and creating space to attack elsewhere.
Look at what happened when we narrowed up Japan through tight, heavy phases.
Carty gets space to target Ringrose on the wing for what I think is a planned crossfield kick. Strike move to start, heavy phases to drag across and narrow in the smaller Japanese forwards, and then expansion to score.
In the 19th minute, we worked an excellent move off this maul break.
Once we secured the ruck, we had the position we needed to hurt Japan. Look at the sequence… a strike move to start, heavy phases to work the position and then, when the time was right, the killer move.
There’s an element of risk on this kick from Carty but he was on penalty advantage, so it was the smart play if he saw the opportunity. There’s an element of luck in the reclaimed kick too, but when you get to the 5m line, you earn that luck.
Ireland went 12-3 up in the 21st minute off that kick and it would be the last we’d score in this game. So what happened? For me, we started making poor decisions almost immediately. When we needed to be tight, we were loose and when we needed to be loose, we were tight. We build a maul off Japan’s restart, went wide off a cross-kick to Earls, before working the ball to Kearney. All good so far. When Kearney takes the ball across the halfway line, he makes a poor decision, for me.
For me, Kearney has to kick this through as he steps into the Japanese half. All of our backs are surging on the position, he has time to take a good option with his kick (over the top, stabbed grubber) and Japan have no fullback in the backfield. Kearney takes the ruck, which isn’t the riskiest option but it stressed our ability to recycle the ball in tough, humid conditions. Ringrose missed his cleanout, so it fell to Farrell to come across and secure the ball.
We get our forwards across the pitch for the next phase but they’re really pushing it. You can see the gap here. Those moments add up later in the game.
Japan have reset before us. We’re looking for the same routine – strike move for position, heavy phases to narrow and then go for the kill shot. Once we got our forwards in place, we went to the formula with success;
Henderson carried well with enough time on his feet to buy our forwards an extra few seconds to get into position. Ryan made a superb carry to set up a centre-field position.
Carty took a conservative option on this bridging play. Sure – he might have hit Van Der Flier with a pass or went for what I think was a planned offload to Van Der Flier behind the contact – but we still had a good central position.
Then we started to overplay. The first error came from Best.
There wasn’t a knock on here – one of a few strange errors from Angus Gardner – but I’m wondering why Best is even trying to link those passes like that. For me, you take the offload and drive on into space with Henderson, Furlong and Ryan to cleanout. Maybe this was a drilled move but it seemed like unnecessary artifice. We were hurting Japan around the fringes so why do we need to throw two offloads in sequence in this kind of humidity?
From the resultant scrum, Ireland earned turnover ball off an O’Mahony tackle. Japan went wide-wide off a scrum, and then tried to come back against the grain to target Ireland’s forwards resetting to edge of the defence.
Once the ball spilt clear, Furlong dinked a ball through for Earls to chase.
Micro-funt aside, I’d have wanted Furlong to barge this ball into contact. There was a winger in front of him, so why not take the contact, win a big gainline and hurt Japan on transition? Instead, we kicked the ball away. Loose when we needed to be tight.
Angus Gardner found an offside penalty for Japan to relieve the pressure a phase later and Japan worked a nice tempo move off the lineout.
We swallowed up the runner on this wide phase but I feel that we went too hard on the choke tackle option.
It’s easy to stay from the couch, but I’d want Stockdale to keep position on the blindside here. Farrell, Ringrose and Henderson had the choke so guard the space. The chip and chase from Japan got the crowd back into the game and gave them a collective oxygen boost.
We recovered, and then handled some side to side tempo-phases from Japan that would have been exactly what we would have expected pre-game. We earned a scrum, exited, and won a penalty on the resultant defensive set. Here was an opportunity to stamp down hard on the Japanese mini-revival. The crowd was up, the Brave Blossoms were full of running, so we needed to take this ball down, maul them for a bit and then kick for position.
Instead, our lineout malfunctioned to give a clean turnover to Japan.
Henderson’s launch is poorly timed but Best’s throw is wildly off-target, for me. We conceded a 3 point penalty in the aftermath when Conor Murray didn’t release in time on a tackle/jackal.
A key moment happened in the aftermath. The Japanese scrum that turned the game on its head. This is where Japan’s chat pre-game paid off big time.
Watch the Japanese loosehead at the top of the GIF.
During week, one of the Japanese props said;
“[cian healy] sort of steps out, so they try to attack from the side,” said Kizu. “That’s my impression of the scrum.”
In this example, the Japanese prop steps out and bores in from the side onto Furlong and Best. All poor Angus Gardner saw was Japan going forward and missed the very thing that Ireland were supposed to be guilty of pre-game. He bought it.
A few minutes later, Angus was hoodwinked again by Japan holding Josh Van Der Flier into a ruck.
I feel bad for Angus, in a lot of ways. Imagine the emotional pressure you’re under as a referee in a host nation underdog situation like this, especially a few days after World Rugby criticised the performance of the refereeing group?
Ireland 12 Japan 9
From there, Carty kicked the ball dead off the restart and Ireland were lucky enough to get into the dressing room still ahead. The second half started with some loose work from halfback. In the resultant transitions, we lost possession through some inaccurate ruck work from Ryan and Furlong.
Murray, still getting off the floor after a carryback in transition, was unable to dictate this ruck and we ceded more momentum to the Japanese. Again, we defended their wide phases quite well, forced an error, scrummaged well and then exited.
Our only contestable box kick from Murray ended up in a positive outcome.
Sure, Earls is impeded off the ball here – and you could wonder about Leitch’s side entry as Van Der Flier did – but this was a good outcome. We earned a penalty from the resulting scrum but blew the lineout after the kick down the line.
It’s a bad, fat throw but the scheme we called wasn’t good enough either. Japan got up at the same time as we did and our target was obvious from the minute Henderson entered the line.
The chance was gone.
We degraded further from there. Our tactical kicking became aimless and produced the opposite effect to last week.
In this humidity, we needed defensive lineouts, not transitions. We needed to make the game slower but, instead, we lost control of the tempo.
More errors crept in. Stander and Farrell bumped into each other off a scrum in a sloppy moment that provided a scrum opportunity for Japan.
If the echoes of Japan’s performance against Fiji a few months ago weren’t more apparent, they earned a 5m line opportunity with a strike move Ireland would have seen coming.
The damage caused by that surge, created a space outside for Japan to attack and they converted well.
Japan 16 Ireland 12
From here, we were in a tough but workable position. With 20 minutes left, we’d have backed ourselves to get back into a position to win the game.
After winning back the restart post exit, we went about hammering the Japan narrow to create space to attack wide – exactly what had worked before.
Have a look at those phases. Carbery is drawing the Japanese out from the last ruck before hitting back inside with heavy runners. When space appeared wide, we attack it smartly and got the reward with a close-range lineout.
We attacked it excellently.
Everything from the lineout to the heavy phases around it were exactly what I’d want in that scenario. Then we lost patience and started overplaying.
When this ball comes to Carbery, he has no screens to work with. I think Cronin and Ringrose are a little too tight to the ruck in this instance because the covering Japanese midfield are outside their pod and uncommitted.
The edge defender can just surge into Carbery’s line and we have to make a split decision – pass to Kearney and risk a turnover and possibly a breakaway try? Or reset? We reset. We retained the ball on that ruck but lost a penalty on the phase after.
It felt like the game at that point. We snatched at a chance and lost another big moment. When I looked back at this game from 20 minutes on, it was just one big moment after the next for Japan. Each moment brought them back into the game and slowly edged it out of our reach. In the end, we were lucky to escape with a losing bonus point.
From a performance POV, this was a game that was managed poorly collectively from 12-3 onwards. Instead of putting the pressure on Japan, we played in a way that allowed them to gain traction. If we’re being honest about how poor Ireland were, we can also admit the benign influence of the referee on Japan’s efforts to get back into the game, but this will not have been a surprise to anyone in the Irish camp given what we know about playing Angus Gardner in an “away” game, as this was. We didn’t lose this game because of Gardner but our poor management of the game allowed him to play a bigger role in its overall direction as it wore on.
I thought we’d compete a little better on Japan’s throw and, more importantly, that we’d play more conservatively once we got ahead. We had a dream start, blew it and that cannot be squared away easily.
We essentially started trading transitions and allowed Japan to keep pace in the game. We wanted it slow and attritional for our mid-sequence patterns – remember, strike move for position, heavy phases to bind the opponent and strike with a move or an earned penalty for points – but too often I thought we kicked aimlessly against a team who wouldn’t tire in the same way that Scotland did. We needed more Japanese lineouts but couldn’t kick for position to squeeze them there.
The loss is a devastating one from a perception perspective. We are the first slain giant of the World Cup and that will stay with this group for a while. From a progression perspective, we can still top the pool with two bonus-point wins over Russia and Samoa, which I would expect us to get.
No one will forget this defeat in a hurry, be it fan, media or player.
Whether it ends up being a useful memory or a monkey on the back remains to be seen.
The Wally Ratings: Japan (A) Rugby World Cup Pool A
Players are rated based on their time on the pitch, if they were playing notably out of position, and on the overall curve of the team performance. DNP means the player did not feature and N/A means they weren’t on the pitch long enough to warrant a fair rating.
Josh Van Der Flier
There’s much to cover in this game and I’ll be doing that in TRK Premium all week long with GIF and Video Articles.