Friday, November 05, 2021

Preview - Ireland v Japan

I really don't want to start my preview on this topic but I feel I have no choice. The main reason I'm reluctant, as I was to post that tweet Thursday evening, is because it exposed me to a response along the lines of "Well, of course you'd say that, you're a Leinster fan".

Apparently we have forgotten the debates that used to go on towards the end of the "noughties" whenever an Ireland team was picked that was Munster-heavy. Then it was Leinster fans crying foul and the "argument" was "backed up" by the fact that the coach hailed from Cork himself. That feuding was boring then and it's boring now, although these days there's the extra garnish of "elitism" thrown in to the accusations of bias for good measure when a selection has mostly Leinster players.

Now to be clear, it's not that I'm trying to say we shouldn't be discussing this ever, whether it's right or wrong. Sure this is the internet and debating all sorts of things is kind of what goes on here.

All I'm saying is that maybe, just maybe, those of us who call ourselves fans of the team first and opinionistas second can stick a pin in that nasty narrative for the very short space of time between the announcement of a matchday squad and the full time whistle?

Because the more we shout and whinge about provincial ratios within a team, or how many were actually born in Ireland, or trawling through Wikipedia pages to work out what schools they all went to, the more we make it look like we want the team to fail to prove us right, which says more about us as "fans" than it does about, well, anything else really.

I'll leave this thread from Three Red Kings here to offer a different angle of the same overall point...

Right, now to the actual harping that's relevant to Saturday. On the podcast this week I spoke to Owen "@overthehillprop" Harrison about Ireland's November opponents as well as the challenges faced by Andy Farrell. One of his many key points was that our plans for this November series were greatly hurt by the cancellation of the USA match.

And although it goes without saying that COVID has affected everyone in many far more serious ways, when our focus narrows to Farrell's tenure holding the Irish reins, you really can't deny that the disruption had him going back to the drawing board far earlier and far more often than anyone would want in a new job.

Following two home wins in the Six Nations we then suffered yet another Twickenham humbling that raised loads of questions, yet while at any other time the coach would have at least had a couple of chances to answer them, they were denied him and he didn't get to resume until October.

Then we had the 2021 Six Nations which went ahead without crowds and this time we kicked off with two defeats that shouldn't have happened for many reasons, with most of those not really down to the actual coaching. Since then, there have been nothing but victories - not all of them pretty, not all of them heroic, but at least one of them giving us evidence that this group of players under this coaching staff is capable of a significant performance and result, which meant (to me anyway) that there was something to build on.

Which brings us to now, exactly at the midpoint of a "World Cup cycle", where the Vegas setback left us, ironically enough, with matches against the very same nations that defeated us in the last two tournaments.

Obviously next week's date with the All Blacks represents the biggest challenge of the three, which makes this match the coaching ticket's only chance to give the squad game time, which in turn means the selection has to be as near to his best as he can get it.

And as you go through the starting XV, while you would certainly raise an eyebrow based on current form in some cases, you can also see how he's going with players who were part of his original plan and offering them the opportunity to get it right.

That last point applies mostly to Messrs Gibson-Park and Lowe. The former has done well in green overall IMO yet has question marks about his displays in blue this season so far, and there is most certainly a bottleneck of talent behind him on the pecking order.

Meanwhile Lowe has had more than one instances wearing green when the spotlight has picked him out after tries conceded. With both starting again, we can only assume it is with specific roles in mind, possibly in around the fringes work for one and a big left boot on the other, we'll have to see.

Next we have Bundee Aki at 12, and if anything demonstrates that this is not a team looking to replicate Leinster's current style of rugby it's that. Ciaran Frawley was called up to the squad yet I assumed it was more for the experience of camp than a fast track to the green jersey, and this seems to be borne out. With Henshaw unavailable, Bundee and Ringrose provide the right mix of power and creativity and should keep Japanese line breaks to a minimum as well.

You may have heard that it's Johnny Sexton's 100th cap in the media during the week? It was only in pretty much every second headline. It's a great milestone for him and he certainly deserves all the hype, but I'm more interested in what he gets out of this team - if he matches the displays he has put in for Leinster in previous weeks then we're in for a treat.

Now to the pack, where we get the first chance to see the "dream team" front row in green. I mean, if this is the reason Porter switched over, then we want this trio together against the ABs which means they definitely need a run together this weekend.

In the second row, I might have gone for Henderson ahead of Beirne myself, but it's still a great pairing and one area we certainly don't want to see Ireland replicating Leinster's form is in lineouts so the calling, throwing, lifting and carrying will be under great scrutiny on Saturday, especially in attacking situations.

Now to the back row, and here I'm going to say to hell with all suggestions of provincial bias. Despite the many options we have in these positions, I really do believe this trio picks itself, at least for Andy Farrell. He had already pointed out Doris as being part of his plans only for him to become unavailable so in his case, he deserves another shot and has been playing well in blue.

When it comes to Jack Conan, well he earned his starts with the Lions, and provided we can play to his strengths, definitely should be involved here. And as for JVDF, he has simply put his red-capped head down and gotten on with the task of improving in the areas where he had to, while still keeping up standards elsewhere and reaching "CJ levels" of Player of the Match awards in the process.

I have said several times I love all of our 6/7/8 options from around the provinces, with more like Gavin Coombes waiting in the wings having big test careers before them, but I really think the look of this three is what the team needs right now and I hope they prove me right.

Now to the bench. Dan Sheehan is set to make his debut and this is great though for Ireland's best team right now to play "Farrell-ball" I think Herring is a better option for the big matches. And for all I said about the starting back row, I wouldn't want an Irish matchday squad to be without Peter O'Mahony if he's available, especially against New Zealand so we should give him a run here.

The ideal scenario for Ireland will be to justify the bookies' prediction of a 17-point margin by having it established relatively early allowing for about half an hour of a Joey Carbery cameo so I hope that happens, although I suppose it wouldn't hurt if he had something of a challenge either, if he really is the back up 10 we're going for.

As for the Japanese lineup, well at this stage we know what they can do under Jamie Joseph so it really doesn't matter how much we know about the actual personnel but that said, they do have plenty of threats like Matsushima, Nakamura and a back row including skipper Labuschagne plus Himeno who withdrew last minute in June.

I'm going into this series confident so I reckon we'll definitely get around the 15-point margin required for maximum ranking points, probably with a hiccup or two along the way, but hopefully mostly part of a great occasion in front of an Aviva Stadium crowd which I'm assuming will be both delighted to be there and fully behind every one of the boys in green.

Of course I'll be tweeting throughout the match and please be sure to head on over to the Harpin Facebook page at the fulltime whistle to leave your thoughts. JLP


Autumn Nations Series
Saturday, November 6, 2021
Kickoff 1pm
Aviva Stadium, Dublin

Referee: Nika Amashukeli (GRU)
Assistant Referee 1: Damon Murphy (RA)
Assistant Referee 2: Pierre Brousset (FFR)
TMO: Eric Gauzins (FFR)

Live on RTÉ2, Channel 4.


Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019