We don’t discuss the coin toss much when it comes to big rugby matches but I’ve always assumed that most modern day out halves prefer to be the one to take the match kick off. With restarts becoming more of a set piece move with every passing season, being the one to hold the ball in your hands to start the proceedings must surely give you that extra bit of control and help you get your game plan in motion.
And if this applies to one 10 more than the rest it surely has to be Johnny Sexton. When you talk about attacking game plans for Leinster and Ireland, sure there are actual coaches involved like Stu Lancaster, Felipe Contepomi and Mike Catt, but you’re fooling yourself if you don’t believe there is also significant tactical input from the on-field general, whether he is actually playing or not.
This is the type of leadership we have come to expect from him and he was showing it long before he came close to reaching 100 caps - after all it is over a decade since that famous half-time speech in Cardiff. So with the stage perfectly set for him to launch another Autumn Series at an Aviva Stadium welcoming back significant crowds for the first time in way too long, having the ball in his hands as Georgian referee Nika Amashukeli blew his whistle at 1pm to get things started must have made the conditions extra perfect for him.
And despite the fact that going by my preview you’d think the only things that mattered about this Ireland selection were where the players were born, what province they played for or what school they went to, right from the moment the ball left Johnny’s boot you could see the real reason they were chosen - each had their important part to play in the game plan and as things turned out, they all carried out those tasks to near perfection.
Because this cannot be stressed enough - although the Brave Blossoms were definitely below par by the standards established under Jamie Joseph, that in no way guaranteed a final score of this magnitude and whatever the opposition or venue, to post 131 points in two matches with just 15 in reply is no mean feat at all at all.
It’s not even like absolutely everything Ireland tried on Saturday paid off, a fact some might seize on to push the negativity but I actually think is good as it gives us room to improve. Besides, it wasn’t even really about what was or wasn’t working, it was more about what we were trying.
Simply put, bringing offloads and “KBA” rugby back to the Irish table is in many ways like taking the shackles off. Over the years it has been our way to truck it up the middle hoping for a penalty to create scoring chances and I don’t even think that’s necessarily a bad thing when you can make it work, although when opposition can see it coming as your “brand” from a long way out, the time does come to mix things up and it looks like we’re doing it.
And what this approach does more than anything else is to justify the selections of Jamison Gibson-Park and James Lowe. In the case of the former, since he arrived at Leinster I always thought he was going against his DNA to be box kicking all the time but to his credit he persevered when it was asked of him and now he is free to look for the “something out of nothing” opportunities players like him often spot, even if they don’t always work.
But as for Lowe, well, if you’re not going to let him be who he is, there’s no point in picking him and from the start you could see that our approach appeared designed to get the two of them as involved as possible as if the plan was to justify their selection - if so, it worked a treat.
Like I say, did everything work? No. A couple of their passes went behind the intended receivers and into touch in those early stages. But it’s the intent that is what we should be discussing at the water coolers around the country right now and there were several occasions when it paid off incredibly well.
To start harping on the actual scores I have to mention another important pair of Irish starters - Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose. In the Channel 4 commentary Nolli Waterman described Ringrose’s overall contribution as “quietly excellent” and this can also apply to Aki who created the space for the opening try with a sublime offload out of the tackle which put Conan through and once it got to Lowe in the wide channel, no amount of huffing and puffing from chasers was going to catch him.
Even though this was just the 3-minute mark and there was loads of action to come, we saw a lot in this try that illustrates what Ireland are doing differently. The move started after a James Lowe kick ahead into their 22 was easily gathered and cleared, and eventually a breakdown just in the Japanese half was going to set things up.
In the past, those “things” would have probably been a series of carries back and forth across the field, with a high ball meant to land on the 22 as the last resort if there was no penalty or hole punched through the defence. Yet here, you could clearly see Gibson-Park was programmed to go with any remote possibility he could sniff and between him, Aki and Conan they found the way through.
Our guests tried to get things going when they could, and showed some innovation off their lineouts but our defending was to remain solid throughout and it wasn’t long before we engaged on the first series of strong carries and perfectly timed support lines and offloads which got us all the way down the pitch until JGP, again with his newly found license to thrill, put through a perfectly weighted grubber which Conway pounced on to finish our second try.
And one other thing about these two opening scores; not only were they scored by the two starting wingers but they were touched down in opposite corners, offering skipper Sexton, whom I didn’t even mention in writing up the tries yet he was of course pulling the strings all the time, very difficult tasks adding the extra points in a challenging Lansdowne Road wind, yet both times he took his time, employed different styles to suit the angle, and slotted them like they were nothing to him.
Going back to Andrew Conway, he’s another who showed exactly why he was selected. The wing is one of a few positions where Ireland have an embarrassment of riches yet while Lowe was openly showing his X-factor on the other side, Conway was just the ticket for chasing down and regaining on the well-chosen occasions we did resort to kicks ahead. His three tries may have been created for him in many ways, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t earn them.
And his second of the three wasn’t long in coming. On our podcast during the week, Owen “@overthehillprop” Harrison pointed out that Japan tend to defend very narrowly and when an Irish lineout and maul clicked so well it ended up getting us from around halfway to deep in their 22, again it was JGP being quick to spot the chance and when it went quickly through the hands, including a superb final long pass from Hugo Keenan (another who was “quietly excellent”) found Conway who was able to finish. Sexton may not have been able to tame the gust in this conversion yet he added a penalty shortly afterwards to make it 22-0 after just 23m.
Our starting scrum half got his own much deserved try at the 33m mark when another lineout saw us crash into their 22 once more and it was a strong Ringrose carry before offloading to JGP that put him through. This made it an already-whopping 29-0 going into the break, and if anything the boys should have been disappointed not to add a 5th try right at the end after a series of short penalties resulted in a yellow card for Sakate but no score.
It took us a while to make the most of the extra man and we found ourselves a bit under pressure in our own half through that spell but eventually Hugo Keenan spotted a chance to go for a 50:22 which he put right in the corner giving us the throw and I have to say it really did look like this set piece was 100% designed to get the 100-cap hero his moment of glory.
Lineout to James Ryan, secure possession, JGP takes it and puts it into Sexton’s path, and boom. By far and away the biggest celebration on the day from players and fans alike (main pic), with good reason. I mean - he was actually smiling and the match was still going on!!! That tells you all you need to know!
A few minutes later we had the sight of Tadhg Furlong rampaging towards the line before shipping a deft offload to someone he’s getting used to seeing on the pitch at the same time, Andrew Porter, and this front foot ball allowed us to send it out wide quickly where it was Bundee Aki this time getting the touch down. 41-0.
You could call the next 15 minutes a “purple patch” for Japan (or is that “aubergine” given our jerseys?) after it was our turn to have our defence caught narrow giving Ringrose two men to deal with allowing Himeno to put Fifita through for a consolation, after which we were well into our bench by the time our next score came along.
It was Iain Henderson who got us back on track when he not only fly hacked a ball that had gone to ground after a sloppy Japanese lineout but also chased it down and clobbered the guy trying to tidy up to force a 5m scrum. From this it was Murray to Ringrose who hit the first tackler strongly enough to be able to reach out and get it down.
A few minutes later it was Murray kicking ahead and Conway doing the chasing, and this time the pressure was enough to force Nakamura into a fumble which allowed the Munster winger to pounce and complete his hat-trick.
By now Sexton had made way for Joey Carbery. My two biggest negatives in Ireland’s display were a couple of creaky second-half lineouts, plus the fact that our skipper was taken off at the 60m mark when it possibly could have been 50. Maybe Carbery could have done with that extra time because he didn’t really manage to create anything in his cameo the way we had been back at the start; those late tries were all from mistakes or short-range opportunities.
Yet he was given the final task of the match as he converted our 9th try right at the death after it was Cian Healy, another ambidextrous Leinster prop, who got the ball down to provide the sprinkles on the cherry on the icing on the cake.
There was to be one more moment to remember after the final whistle when Japan skipper Lappies Labuschagné presented Sexton with one of the coolest gifts possible, a Samurai sword to mark his great milestone. An excellent touch from the JRFU even if the tinfoil hat-wearing blogger in me can’t help wondering if the Top League might be interested in his services should he wish to play beyond RWC2023!
But the gesture also provided me with the perfect pun for my headline and there is no doubt this was a confident, impressive performance that has hopefully provided the definition to the Andy Farrell era we were all looking for. And I shouldn’t let this writeup go without mentioning a couple of other starters in Caelan Doris and Josh van der Flier, either of whom could have taken the Player of the Match gong instead of fellow back rower Jack Conan as they too knuckled down and did their jobs with clinical precision.
Obviously this winning margin won’t fool any of us into any assumptions regarding our next opponents, but at least you have to hope that it has shown the majority of supporters that there is in fact a reason that among all the many options of qualified Irish players available, the coaching ticket went for these.
Would I make any changes to the starting lineup next week? Well gun to my head I might start Henderson over Beirne but I don’t mean that as a criticism, it’s just, well, I did have a gun to my head....what I can say for sure is that this performance gives me a lot of confidence in whatever matchday squad gets announced during the week. As for the All Blacks’ side of things, well their press is already talking us up and I plan to talk to one of their top online pundits in “Driving Maul” on the podcast so stay tuned for that.
All in all watching this match, both live as it happened and a second time on Sunday evening, provided perfect bookends to what was overall a cracking weekend of test rugby, with WALvRSA, FRA v ARG and SCOvAUS all providing plenty of entertainment in their own right, not just for what was happening on the pitch, but also because they we being played out in front of the crowd sizes we were used to. Long may that continue. JLP