RWC 2019 Pool Game 14: Japan shock again as Ireland left stunned

They’ve only gone and done it again. Four years after the ‘Brighton Miracle’, Japan have set their home tournament alight with a sensational 19-12 defeat of highly-fancied Ireland in Shizuoka.

A dominant opening quarter from the Irish saw them lead 12-3, but Japan targeted the breakdown, began to get the upper hand at the set-piece, and preyed on Irish ill discipline to trail 12-9 at the break. And with belief and confidence flowing in the second half, and the home crowd playing their part, the Brave Blossoms produced another masterclass to frustrate Ireland’s game plan, tackle themselves to a standstill, and score a converted try and a penalty to record another upset, and blow Pool A wide open.

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It was a lightning-fast start from both sides, a half break from Garry Ringrose getting Ireland on the front-foot at one end, before a grubber through for Kotaro Matsushima at the other was just missing the right bounce needed for the winger to add to his opening game hat-trick.

A breakdown penalty shortly after, when Peter O’Mahony went off his feet, gave Yu Tamura an early shot at the posts. But the flyhalf, who admitted to opening-night nerves after his poor kicking display against Russia, didn’t lay those demons to rest with his first effort, the ball shanking horribly left off the tee.

Another break from Ringrose had Ireland back in prime position in the 13th minute. And after the forwards had put their shoulders to the wheel to earn a penalty, flyhalf Jack Carty – in for the injured Johnny Sexton – played the advantage to put a pinpoint crossfield kick up for the industrious Ringrose to pluck from the air, and dot down the opener.

An offside infringement after the restart tainted Ireland’s score, especially when Tamura found his range to make it 5-3. But they were soon back in the hunt at the end of the first quarter, and secured a second five-pointer in similar circumstances, Carty kicking over the top with another penalty advantage, and tapping it back himself for fullback Rob Kearney to slide home.

The pressure continued, the increasingly confident Carty dropping another beautifully weighted crossfield kick to release Keith Earls for a run, before a lovely grubber off the left foot of multi-faceted prop Tadhg Furlong had the Japanese turning around again inside their red zone.

Japan’s task didn’t get any easier on the half hour, influential no.8 Amanaki Mafi leaving the field with a rib injury.  But that also meant an early appearance off the bench for usual captain Michael Leitch, with stand-in skipper Lappies Labuschagne still calling the shots.

It was a returning recent blight of Ireland’s game that helped get the Brave Blossoms back on the scoreboard. A Rory Best overthrow at the lineout was picked off by Japan, who built multiple phases at pace to work into the 22. And when Conor Murray was deemed to have gone off his feet, Tamura duly slotted the 3pts.

When Ireland were then pinged for not rolling away and Tamura made it 12-9 at the break, the increased volume from the home section of the crowd left no-one in any doubt that they believed another ‘miracle’ could be on the cards.

The speed of the game didn’t abate after the break, Japan keen to try and run Ireland off their feet. With the scrum not going their way either – Cian Healy in particular seeming to struggle against impressive Korean-born tighthead Jiwon Koo – lrish coach Joe Schmidt changed his looseheads to try and change the picture for the referee with Dave Kilcoyne joining the fray.

They duly won a penalty at the next engagement with the Japanese front row standing up, but the handy position it offered from a lineout was wasted by another errant throw from Best.

A helter-skelter period of play as Ireland were increasingly drawn into the type of game Japan wanted, ended with another infringement from the visitor’s in the 54th minute, but Tamura couldn’t level matters. But they were gifted another opportunity straight away, an accidental offside giving them the feed at a handily-placed scrum.

‘This time they went all in, the ball cleared quickly for a couple of barraging carries up the middle to suck in defenders. And when replacement halfback Fumiaki Tanaka ripped it wide for Ryoto Nakamura to bypass several green jerseys with a bullet cut-out pass, centre partner Timothy Lafaele was on hand to send Kenki Fukuoka scampering down the sideline and over. Tamura’s sideline conversion only fuelled the vocal fire now raging inside the stadium, and with 20 minutes to go belief was building that another upset was on the cards.

With their backs against the wall Ireland reverted to their usual MO – multiple phases, pick and drives, and smart kicking to work themselves towards the Japanese 22. But after playing off a lineout play with Murray calling the shots, a clean hit from James Moore and support on the floor saw a penalty for the home side clear the danger.

Back came Ireland, throwing everything at their hosts with the clock ticking down towards the last 10 minutes. But they were met with phenomenal resistance from anyone in a Japanese jersey, tackling themselves to a standstill man to man, with Michael Leitch imperious and leading by example with a ridiculous tackle count.

A brilliant exit play from a scrum then had Japan back up the other end of the field, and when Ireland went offside, Tamura edged them in front 19-12 with just over seven minutes to play.

A breakdown penalty after the restart gave Ireland another chance to attack, only for new flyhalf Joey Carbery to shank his kick to touch and lose about 40 metres. The pressure in the cauldron was telling.

Ireland came again, Japan repelled them, and as they were forced backwards they chanced their arm and it cost them the game.

Jordan Larmour threw a loose pass infield where Fukouka was waiting to pounce, and the diminutive winger intercepted to race away with Larmour and Earls in hot pursuit.
But despite an entire country screaming him home, he just couldn’t quite shake off a brilliant chase from Earls, who caught his man and brought him to ground just 10 metres from glory.

However, a knock-on from Ireland in their haste to take back possession and head in the other direction, gave Japan the put-in at a scrum. Smartly running the clock down with a few resets, by the time the ball did come out and they knocked-on near the line the siren had gone. Ireland needed to go the length to get a draw, but their ignominy was completed by Carbery kicking the ball into touch to preserve the losing bonus point.

After the ‘Brighton Miracle’ they’re already calling this the ‘Shizuoka Stunner’. But Japan’s biggest challenge moving forward may be to keep their focus for the two remaining games in the pool. Lose one or both and they could still miss out on a Quarter-Final. Win both and not only will they top the group, no-one will want to play them.

Having looked so impressive in defeating Scotland, no-one expected this outcome for Ireland. It was also a reminder of how key Jonny Sexton is to this team. Surely he wouldn’t have allowed a 12-3 lead to evaporate on his watch.

How they respond to one of their darkest days will define the legacy Joe Schmidt leaves behind when his tenure closes at the end of the tournament. Expect them to still get out of the pool, but do they have it in them to find their very best form for a Quarter-Final against New Zealand and South Africa?

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JAPAN 19 (Kenki Fukoaka try; Yu Tamura con, 4 pens) defeated IRELAND 12 (Garry Ringrose, Rob Kearney tries; Jack Carty con) HT 9-12 at Shizuoka Stadium

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