Hi. Welcome to my safe space for Irish rugby supporters. I hope it can be a place for honesty, understanding, appreciation, contemplation, and, of course, respect.
Because we all know how the wider rugby world is viewing this result, and we’d be exactly the same if it were anyone else on the receiving end; indeed we were when it was the Springboks back in 2015.
So with that in mind, this can’t be anything close to a “normal match writeup”, where I try to go through the 80 minutes offering thoughts on the important incidents. Instead I want to have a go at putting it in a realistic context for us to bring it forward without getting too caught up in hyperbole. And as I embark on this journey which involves writing under some general headings related to respect, I don’t see it as an easy one.
...FOR THE OPPOSITION
First and foremost, there can be no disputing that the Brave Blossoms played out of their skins. And it wasn’t only that; they also completely bucked the trend I thought they had displayed throughout the warmup series.
On the way to their 2019 Pacific Nations Cup title I noticed they tended to start matches well; first building up an early lead, then bringing it home. Yet in their final warmup against the Springboks, who were much more physical from the kickoff and thus thwarted them from putting any kind of lead on the scoreboard, they looked a lot more like a team that warranted the 21-point Irish winning margin being offered by some rugby betting sites.
We did something very similar to them in Shizuoka, restricting them to just one try over the 80 minutes, a defensive effort that included some incredible scrambling and would have been to the forefront of any analysis had the result gone the other way. Yet despite the fact that they didn’t register any score for the first 17m, they never let up and their ability to somehow surpass our own defensive capabilities was outstanding.
There was many a stage throughout the match where they could have given up, yet while there was the odd piece of individual brilliance like Matsushima dancing his way out of a tight spot over his own try line, the bulk of their work was done by a seemingly telepathic understanding throughout the team when it came to shutting us down. If I hadn’t intended to set a more serious tone with this writeup, my title could have been “Joe ‘out-Joed’ by Joseph”.
And now that I have done all I can to do so show respect for Japan as a supporter, I also need to explore the extent to which the Irish team itself did so. While we did have many failings on the day, there certainly was no one individual responsible who was wearing green on the pitch, although an argument could be made for one that wasn’t.
With the tight turnaround times between our opening three matches (though yes, I know other nations had even tighter ones), big selection choices had to be made. And leaving Johnny Sexton out of the matchday 23 was definitely a massive one. However you wish to frame it from our coaching staff’s perspective, that had to send a message to our opposition that we felt we didn’t need him. And let’s be clear, I wasn’t exactly complaining about his absence before kickoff myself, so it’s not like I’m saying I told you so.
So I wonder how that might have played in Jamie Joseph’s team meetings? It could definitely have been one of those “pinned to the dressing room wall” stories that are often told in sporting lore. Listen lads - these guys think they can beat us without their best player. How about we show ‘em they’re wrong?
I’ll harp more on the performances of Messrs Carty and Carbery under a later heading, but I have to say that although Sexton wasn’t exactly in his top form against Scotland last week, I can’t help feeling that his involvement on Saturday could easily have accounted for the 8 points we were short of victory by the final whistle, even if it was off the bench.
...FOR THE SPORT
I touched on this earlier but this is a point that needs expanding. However much this result hurts us as Irish fans, if we don’t take a step back and appreciate how important it is to the sport as a whole, we’ll never see the full picture.
Rugby simply has to find a way to appeal to nations outside the ‘top tier’ ones; that is an imperative. And it’s one of the principal reasons why this World Cup is being played in Japan. There are no amount of Law changes and tweaks to tournament formats that can do better for the game’s image than an upset victory like this, particularly by a team that played so well in the process. That they happen to be a massive media market doesn't hurt either.
Believe me, I’m not writing this section because I want to make anyone feel any better; it’s more like I see it as a fact that can’t be ignored. From Ireland’s perspective, should more nations join us at the top table, it’s up to us to adjust enough to ensure we can continue to compete at it and hopefully that will be our biggest overall take from this match.
...FOR THE REFEREE
*sigh* Boy, do I hate this topic, mostly because of all the rugby ones that tend to be over-polarised, this one is near the top of the list.
Post-match discussions among fans of a losing rugby team normally descend into two camps when it comes to a ref : one which suggests he was somehow biased against us and brought about the result, and another which insists that we should never question the officials.
For a major upset result like this one, it becomes infinitely more difficult for us to complain about Angus Gardner’s performance, but I simply cannot offer a long writeup of the match without discussing it. I just hope I use enough words elsewhere along the lines of “we were also poor” and “Japan were also good” to make it clear that I’m not pinning it all on him.
And don’t worry, I won’t go meticulously back over the 80 minutes and break down every single decision either. Instead I am going to focus on two things about his display that bothered me, try to make my point as respectfully as I can, and then move on to the next topic.
The first had to do with consistency. Peter O’Mahony was pinged after four minutes for not supporting his own bodyweight at the breakdown, giving Yu Tamura his first opportunity to take a shot at goal, one he actually missed. Taken on its own, it was a borderline call, yet that border could be easily defined as one between the north and south hemispheres, so at the time, I wasn’t too bothered.
Fast forward to 67 minutes, when we’re chasing the game and actually doing a decent job of advancing the ball before Japan’s skipper for the day, Pieter Labuschagne, goes through a breakdown to find himself over the ball. Gardner tells him “No! 7, no!” yet he stays there for a few more moments before backing away. Conor Murray pleads for a penalty but instead has to play the ball and his next pass is called forward, thus ending the attack.
My point is that O’Mahony got no such warning; there was just a straight whistle. And immediately after the Labuschagne non call, we conceded two successive offside penalties, the second of which allowed Tamura to kick his side to a 7-point cushion. Neither time were we given a warning, while he did clearly warn the host nation of straying offside more than once in the second half.
The other top bugbear of mine came during two scrums turning that final 8 minutes when Japan were aiming to bring their lead home; one on 73m, another on 79m. Both times, the initial set of the scrum didn’t satisfy Gardner, which is fine, though I don’t understand why both times he had to slow walk his way around to the other side for a better look without stopping the clock? No, I’m not going all “Joe Brolly” suggesting it was a conspiracy; I’m just saying it was a very bad look for that particular situation, and one that I couldn’t leave out, particularly as Jamie Joseph had brought up the issue of our scrummaging during the week.
All I’m saying is that we should be free to acknowledge the referee’s contribution to a contest. They’re human, they make mistakes, and since the sign of a good official is one that we don’t notice, surely we can point out when we do. Let me put it this way...whatever about my thoughts on Gardner in this match, I certainly won’t be doing a ‘face-palm’ the next time I see him listed to referee Ireland.
My 10-year-old son recently introduced me to a phrase he got from his playing of Fortnite : “rage-quitting”, where someone gets so angry with their failure in the game that they switch off the console altogether without telling the friends they had been chatting to on their headset. Well, I’m not proud to say my inner 10-year old made me rage-quit from a WhatsApp group shortly after the full time whistle on Saturday morning.
You actually know the comments are coming. And you know the people who make them only ever offer one when they want to be negative, even if it’s about their own team or country. But it doesn’t make it any easier to read when your emotions have been left so raw by such a disappointing result.
So since I actually know and get along with this guy, I decided it best to leave the group so I wouldn’t be tempted to reply the way my instincts demanded. I was back in within a couple of hours so you’ll be happy to know all is good on that score.
But the fact remains that the only opinions about the Irish team that can really be respected are ones that look at every aspect of a performance, not just those that confirm our own bias (yeah, I know - good luck finding much of THAT on the internet, right?). Much has been said about Ireland’s game plan, but to dismiss it out of hand is to ignore that it was actually working for the first half an hour.
If at kickoff you had offered me a 12-3 lead at that stage with two tries on the board, I’d have taken your hand off. And with Jack Carty pulling the strings, we seemed to have a plan which allowed him to use his ability with the boot in open play to keep our attacks ticking over, and with good support he managed just that.
Our first try was the result of Garry Ringrose showing once more how determined he was to put past off-days behind him with a show and go getting him into Japan’s 22 on the way to a 12-phase set which culminated in the Leinster centre gratefully catching a perfect crossfield kick from Carty with a penalty advantage coming.
The second was more directly thanks to our outhalf. This time there had been 7 phases before the penalty advantage came, and rather than go crossfield, Carty chose to dink one over the top and he actually got a finger to it himself allowing it to fall for Rob Kearney who got it down.
Now it’s not as though the Brave Blossoms had no chances in those early stages. After 3 minutes a grubber was put through over the line and a later fly hack put us under pressure in our own 22, but first Stockdale and then van der Flier were able to tidy, with the latter making his situation look much more comfortable than it was.
So for the first thirty minutes, all the Schmidtball elements were more or less there...reliable set pieces, ability to finish, tough D, little or no mistakes. For me, the moment that everything began to change was just after Japan’s squad captain Michael Leitch came on for their injured number 8 Mafi. Whether or not one is related to the other, only the rugby gods know.
We had a lineout at halfway. Up to this point our darts had been perfect, and not too laboured either. But when Best’s dart now sailed over the outstretched fingers of Henderson, we couldn’t help but think “ruh-roh”, and when two further penalties (neither of which I was happy about but I’ve already used up all that credit) put Japan within three points, we knew how important it was for us to find the accuracy again.
And when Carty found a good touch shortly after the start of the second half, it really did look as though ‘more of the same’ was the way to go for us to get our momentum back, but it wasn’t long before it looked as though the Connacht out-half’s kicking mojo had run out, as his efforts weren’t getting the accuracy his chasers needed to make them into positives anymore.
So with our own possession going nowhere, the race to the crucial first score of the second half was leaning towards Japan. I thought Carty might have been challenged in the air at halfway on 52m but since nobody else seemed to mention it I won’t add it to my concerns about the officials. From there another series of controlled possession plus penalties against us got them into our 22 but once more our defence seemed in control, forcing a knockon after 10 phases. Then came our mostly costly mistake of the night.
Exiting from set pieces might be something a Joe Schmidt team can do in its sleep, but that doesn’t mean we should do anything to test that theory. If the call was for CJ Stander to take from the base and link up with his Munster team mate Chris Farrell, then there’s no way one should run into the other tempting an accidental offside decision from the ref. And just how pumped were Japan with that call?
They simply were not going to let this chance go, throwing the kitchen sink at our defence with every carry after the scrum before making full use of the “right to go wide” they had earned by putting sub Fukuoka over, and with Tamura making his toughest kick of the match (all penalties were central), they now had their first lead of four points.
I see a lot of “we had no plan B” in the post-match commentary and I couldn’t disagree more, though that’s not to say it was one that worked. On came Joey Carbery for Carty and now we were trying more conventional means of advancing the ball, namely up the middle with carriers like Kilcoyne, Ruddock and Cronin now on to do the heavy lifting and also Tadhg Beirne there to do his pilfering thing.
But while we did manage to put some decent sets together, the tactical change also allowed Japan to revert to the defensive plan which they had clearly been preparing since the pool draw was made (this is possibly why we had chosen to kick our possessions away so early up to that point). And with some good jackling here, a questionable penalty there, another missed Irish dart somewhere else, and other things besides, we just did not look like we had a third try in us.
Finally after 14 weary Irish phases back and forth across the pitch, with the humidity playing an increasing factor with each passing second, Fukuoka pinched an interception and please, whatever you do, don’t EVER talk about this match at any length without mentioning the herculean efforts of Keith Earls to not only track him down, but also to stop him from scoring. Any crumb of consolation that can be taken from our losing bonus point is down to the Munster man - that was some sterling work.
Another online debate that had me scratching my head was over Carbery kicking the ball out to end the match, but for me it was simple. We had struggled to break through Japan’s D in good attacking positions - how were we to do it from our own try line for the reward of one extra match point at the risk of losing the one we had? No brainer of a decision IMO....FOR YOUR VALUABLE TIME
Right - I’ve been harping for over 2,700 words and even if I went on to 5,000, it wouldn’t change the result so a bit like Joey, I need to put this one to touch quickly.
As I type, the Scots are getting their bonus point try against Samoa, which means that qualification from Pool A is still very much in our hands.
We now need a clinical, efficient performance against Russia on Thursday before regrouping for the 9-day turnaround before we play Samoa. Given the strength that is set to come out of Pool B, I really see no point in putting too much thought to where we finish right now, once it’s in the top two.
For me, as Irish fans, our ability to believe we can get that job done is directly proportional to the amount of respect we have for all the work Joe Schmidt and his team have done in recent years, particularly when it comes to rebounding from a disappointment. I know where I stand, and I hope you’re with me. JLP
BELOW IS AN AUDIO VERSION OF THE ABOVE WRITEUP
Later this week on Harpin On Rugby...
Tuesday - Benetton v Leinster writeup & guest posts
Thursday - Upcoming rugby on Irish TV & a selection of online comments after Ireland v Russia
Friday - Ireland v Russia writeup & Leinster v Ospreys preview (video)
Sunday - a selection of online comments after Leinster v Ospreys
Monday - Leinster v Ospreys match writeup
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