WHO WAS THERE
Before I begin harping on the match itself, first some thoughts on the two-match series. It happens to be against two test nations over which I couldn’t possibly have more mixed feelings.
As an overall rugby fan, I think it is absolutely crucial that the sport develops its market in both Japan and the USA. Once they grow popularity to a certain point in those places it should have an exponential effect on the game all over the world so for the most part, we definitely want to see both the Brave Blossoms and the Eagles succeeding on the pitch wherever possible.
But as an Irish rugby fan….I have to think again. It’s hard enough for us to get into the final four of a RWC as it is without two sleeping giants waking up and getting there before us with their limitless potential when it comes to personnel and resources. But I suppose this viewpoint represents the devil on my shoulder as it wouldn’t exactly be the most pure of motivations…
So back we go to being delighted to see the teams improving, and when it comes to Japan they definitely seem to be moving at the quicker pace of the two, which was evident at RWC2019, but also despite not playing any rugby since, has also been there for us to see both against the Lions and us in recent weeks.
However...I do feel I need to push back a little bit on a narrative I’ve seen doing the rounds since this Saturday, along the lines of “they are just amazing to watch”. I mean - yes, they are trying to play an attractive style of rugby and there have been some flashes of this at times, but if we want them at the game’s top table surely we have to be judging their play accordingly and for me, I think they made a lot of mistakes at the Aviva Stadium and I assume their coach Jamie Joseph will be at pains to point this out to them.
Now, of course, we made a host of mistakes too, and I will get to them, but I wanted to make that point first. They were of course very unlucky to lose Himeno shortly before kickoff (though I noticed the Channel 4 commentary team went the entire first half without noticing that Tevita Tatafu was wearing 8 instead) but still had more than enough talent on hand to do better and will no doubt expect more in the future.
Anyway, about time I got to the green side of things. First and foremost, wasn’t it great to see the fans there. At Leinster we got a taste a few weeks ago, but this was obviously on another level again. And as much as we who like to analyse matches to death have to point out all the errors and such, for this crowd to see nine tries and 70 points wasn’t exactly the worst thing that could happen.
But when it came to our actual performance, well are we allowed to factor in the missing Lions for our getting off to a slow start? Probably not, as like I said in my preview, it was a very experienced lineup despite the absentees. And we can hardly point to a lack of rugby either given how long our opposition had been out of action.
So when Yu Tamura kicked them into a 3-0 lead with only a few minutes on the clock after we shipped a couple of silly penalties in quick succession, it did not look good. Nor did it look good when we wrestled back the lead three more times only to fall behind again until we nudged in front to stay with half an hour left, thanks in part to some of the mistakes I mentioned at the start.
Basically it was an untidy display, although it’s fair enough to say that most of what was going wrong for us in the early stages got a lot better as the match wore on, and that can only be a good thing. I have to assume the team will be a lot different next weekend so we will only learn so much about the team’s overall development, but if you can’t see the glass half full in what was our fourth win on the bounce, then I can’t help you.
Probably the best way to go through this high scoring match would be to look at how each of the tries came about so here goes…
7m Chris Farrell try (Carbery conversion) 7-3
We made up for the early penalties by winning one of our own giving us our first attacking position with a lineout at the 22. This first one went really well, with Caelan Doris providing the crash ball, some great support getting it to the line and Chris Farrell getting it over. Everything seemed to be in order at this stage.
10m Michael Leitch try (Tamura conversion) 7-10
Then came the restart after the try. Was it Ultan Dillane’s positioning or that of his lifters? I’ll let the coaches sort that out at the DVD session but it sailed over the Connacht lock’s head putting Jordan Larmour under a lot of pressure tidying up and the chasers soon won the Brave Blossoms a penalty.
All credit to them having the confidence to go for the corner, and even more for backing it up with a well executed lineout play of their own with the maul getting to the line allowing their skipper to get the ball down.
25m Stuart McCloskey try (conversion missed) 12-10
This try was probably the pick of the bunch, but I can’t describe it before mentioning the chance Japan missed to stretch their lead even further. Soon after their first try, they played some superb KBA rugby around our 22 despite some resilient D on our part and eventually a gap appeared up the middle allowing Lafaele to dot down but the TMO rightly spotted the final pass from Tamura was forward even though it didn’t need to be.
So having just about scraped through that crisis and also our lineout was starting the have some problems, we managed to get some parity by way of kick tennis around midfield until Joey Carbery went for a little broken play chip that he hoped to retrieve himself.
As things turned out he did, albeit with an extremely lucky bounce, but what happened from that moment on was a delight to watch. First JGP got the ball out in the direction it needed to be and Doris was well positioned to act the pivot in a wraparound. Once in the hands of Stuart McCloskey, he knew something was on.
Many seem to think Stu is only good for barreling forward until he’s tackles but Ulster fans will be quick to point out he has a lot more to his game than that. Here he knew he had to use the support with him in the wide channel so he shipped it to Peter O’Mahony who was fully in the zone on the day and steamrolled through a tackle or three before returning it to McCloskey who got it down in the corner.
35m Timothy Lafaele try (Tamura conversion) 12-17
From the best try to look at through green goggles to the worst. Japan weren’t afraid to get creative when it came to finding ways through our defences and with a penalty advantage a little kick through went toward Fifita out wide and unfortunately Shane Daly, a first half replacement for Jordan Larmour, got himself completely smoked which stacked the odds against either Carbery or Keenan making their tackles afterwards and an offload to Lafaele put him through and restoring the visitors’ lead.
40+1m FInlay Bealham try (Carvery conversion) 19-17
This is where I felt Japan made their biggest mistake and possibly even lost the match. With possession in their own 22 and the clock at 38 minutes they tried to run the ball out of their own end and Ireland smelled blood in the water eventually forcing Matsushima to chuck a pass into touch.
It was very much in our own plus column that we were able to make the most of this extra possession with a successful lineout to Ryan, a maul to the 5m line, and with Japan pinged a couple of times for offside, we were eventually able to force our way over courtesy of Finlay Bealham and somehow had the lead going into the break.
44m Siosaia Fifita try (Tamura conversion) 19-24
A couple of minutes after the break we lost Chris Farrell to a head collision. Thankfully he left the pitch under his own steam and was never to return. The ref stopped the match for him to get treatment and Japan put themselves back in front directly from the scrum.
It resulted from another patch of poor defending out wide, only rather than missed tackled, it was a complete mixup between McCloskey and Daly at a breakdown as both went into it leaving a massive gap on the touchline which Tamura was able to exploit to the full by kicking ahead and allowing Fafita in.
48m Josh van der Flier try (Carbery conversion) 26-24
But like I said earlier, we were doing better at this stage in areas where we had struggled. First I actually think we looked more settled creatively with JGP, Burns and Carbery as 9/10/12 instead of the starting trio. Not sure if that’s down to individuals or just how they play together, but it was definitely noticeable.
Next was the lineout woes very much getting fixed. When it worked, we had ourselves a platform where we always looked like getting points, and this was evident during this two-try purple patch that probably sealed victory for us. First came crash ball off a lineout which got us into the 22 before JGP danced his way to the line allowing his forwards to do the rest and JVDF, who got player of the match though to be fair it could have gone to either of his fellow back rowers, that got it over.
51m Jacob Stockdale try (Carbery conversion)
Then have returned to the 22 thanks to Daly being taken in the air, it was strong carries from Kelleher and JVDF this time that put us into position and say whatever you want about Jamison Gibson Park but we have no better 9 on this island than he for finding that final pass and he did just that to put Stockdale over in the corner, followed up by easily Carbery’s best placekick of the day.
56m Kaito Shigeno try (Saito conversion) 33-31
But Carbery’s fortunes were to remain mixed as when he tried to grubber one into touch around midfield but instead gave it straight to Semisi Masirewa and all of a sudden Japan had a 4 v 1 out in the wide channel. To be fair to Joey, his teammates didn’t exact react quickly to the situation (Burns can actually be seen running in the opposite direction), but the net result was that Japan got themselves back within two points and the match seemed to be anything but over.
61m & 68m Carbery penalties 39-31
Referee Karl Dickson didn’t have his best afternoon I thought, and at one stage when John Ryan handled a catcher in the air he was extremely lucky that although the officials saw it, the penalty still went his team’s way.
That said, the pair of penalties that Japan conceded in the final quarter were probably avoidable on their part, although our own defence definitely seemed to go up a notch after the introduction of the likes of Baird and Coombes.
Speaking of the bench, there’s another common narrative that I’d like to push back on, namely that of the controversially condensed Craig Casey cameo. You’ll just have to trust me that this isn’t a Leinster over Munster thing, I just think the coaches need a bit of leeway in that there may have been a legitimate reason for delaying his introduction.
For one thing, like I said, JGP, Burns and Carbery seemed to be getting good results together so to break up that trio may have been premature with a match still there to be won. But it was possibly more about the fact that two of our three bench backs were used earlier than expected and even if someone wasn’t carrying a knock, it probably made sense to hold off on Casey until the last possible moment just in, er, case. Hopefully he’s down for a start next week and also hopefully, that will appease the critics.
So a winning start to this brief summer series for Ireland and I'll look forward to seeing the lineup which could face similar challenges against the USA next time out, if their performance against England is anything to go by.
All going well there will be another victory to celebrate by appreciating those who are actually there as opposed to bemoaning those who are not. JLP