In the perfect world, the one the squad envisioned on the flight out to Japan, Ireland would already have their slot booked in the quarter-final by this stage.
With a nine-day break, after a predictable win over Russia, to the final pool outing against Samoa next Saturday, the blueprint for taking out South Africa in that quarter-final would already be on the table and part of the staple daily training diet, despite the necessity to deal with the specific threats the Samoans carry. Joe Schmidt and his coaching staff would be simultaneously priming two different sets of players for two diverse challenges.
The shock defeat to Japan changed that. All of a sudden, nine days seems an intolerably long time to ponder over what might transpire against Samoa in Fukuoka.
The Scottish squad has just gone through a similar experience. Staying in my hotel in Kobe, they too had nine days to put down after beating Samoa in the Kobe oven before playing Russia today. Our paths crossed in the hotel lift on several occasions. Some of the players looked bored to distraction. On the assumption Scotland bag a full five-point return from today’s game, everything then hinges on their final clash against Japan next Sunday.
The potential for having our game against Samoa switched to another venue due to the impending threat of Typhoon Hagibis, currently forming in the Western Pacific Ocean, doesn’t help Ireland’s cause but hopefully it will prove another false alarm.
With the Samoan game out of the way, hopefully with a bonus point and a performance more in keeping with the opening effort against Scotland, the Irish squad will watch that final pool game on Sunday with more than a passing interest as the outcome will dictate who we meet in the quarter-final. While uncertainty surrounds the outcome of that game — once again Scotland are confidently predicting a positive result — the implications of Joey Carbery kicking the ball dead to retain Ireland’s losing bonus point at the death against Japan are crystal clear now.
If Scotland defeat Japan and deny them a losing bonus point, Ireland will top the pool with any sort of a win over Samoa.
There is a scenario where Ireland, Japan, and Scotland could all end up on 15 points which brings points differential into the equation so, ideally, Ireland need to beat Samoa with a four-try bonus point to make their progression crystal clear.
That losing bonus point salvaged against Japan, in the first place by Keith Earls’s amazing tackle from behind on Japanese flyer Kenki Fukuoka and copperfastened by Carbery’s clear thinking at the death, despite the heat haze, means Ireland could yet meet the Springboks.
That’s all conjecture at this stage and is meaningless unless Ireland show up and rediscover their form and confidence against Samoa. Tonga showed what the Pacific Islanders are capable of when they stopped playing the man and concentrated on playing rugby against France in Kumomata last Saturday.
Discipline remains a big problem for the Islanders, especially around the tackle area. They constantly look to make massive hits but, crucially, still have to learn to lower their body height in the tackle. Two Samoans, centre Ray Lee-Lo and hooker Motu Matu’u, were suspended for three weeks and effectively ruled out of the tournament for two reckless hits on Russian captain Vasily Artemyev.
How referee Romain Poite allowed the Television Match Official Graham Hughes to convince him they were only yellow card offences was mind-boggling but Samoa still haven’t learned their lesson.
It doesn’t help that their coaching staff appear complicit in these stupid actions. When Samoan flanker TJ Ioane was correctly yellow carded for a no-arms shoulder charge into the chest of Japanese try-scoring sensation Kotaro Matsushima last weekend, the television camera caught their coach, Steve Jackson, sarcastically clapping the referee’s decision.
That’s what worries me in terms of the physical damage they might inflict on Ireland next weekend. Schmidt cannot afford to lose any more players to injury at this stage.
Elsewhere, the pool stage is stumbling to its inevitable conclusion with New Zealand, South Africa, England, France, and Australia all qualified for the quarter-finals with a game to spare.
Wales should join them with a win over Fiji today, leaving Ireland, Japan, and Scotland fighting it out for the final two places. All a bit predictable, really.
Outside of New Zealand and South Africa, England appear the best equipped to go all the way and repeat the heroics of 2003 as the only northern hemisphere side to win the World Cup in the eight tournaments to date.
While they were very impressive in the clinical 39-10 disposal of Argentina last Saturday, that outcome appeared inevitable from as early as the 18th minute when Argentina’s highly combustible second row Tomas Lavanini became the sixth player to receive a red card, more than in any previous tournament, despite the fact that we still have 19 games to play.
Eight players have been suspended for dangerous tackles already under the new zero tolerance approach. Lavanini is a walking time bomb who collects cards, be they yellow or red, so he has frequently become a liability.
Leicester Tigers must have taken that into consideration before signing him from the World Cup onwards but already he will miss the first three games of his tenure with his new club due to suspension. They had better get used to it.
While Lavanini’s stupidity made Argentina’s task impossible, England looked the better side. Right now they carry a brilliant mix of power and physicality up front, a twin playmaking threat in George Ford and Owen Farrell allied with real pace out wide in Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly, Joe Cokanasiga, Jonny May, and Jack Nowell. Eddie Jones is spoilt for choice in a number of areas.
They look on course to meet Australia in their quarter-final and right now, I would fancy them to win that one. Their reward for that? Most likely a semi-final against either New Zealand or South Africa, with potentially the other waiting for them in the final, so they will have to do things the hard way.
On the assumption that Ireland’s game goes ahead as scheduled in Fukuoka, there is a strong likelihood that it will be played in strong winds and rain, a far cry to what they have played in to date. Cain Healy confirmed during the week how his lungs were burning up in the game against Japan and how challenging it is to play in the dense humidity.
I’ve been following events at the World Athletics Championship in Doha and the necessity to run the women’s marathon at midnight to cater for temperatures of 32°C with 78% humidity. Only 40 of the 68 athletes managed to finish the race.
When you consider that those conditions aren’t far off from what some of the games here were played in, is it any surprise that forwards in the 18 stone (114kg) to 20 stone (127kg) category are struggling to last the pace? The sight of Healy being called ashore five minutes into the second half against Japan was proof positive of that.
The good news is that the temperatures and humidity levels have dropped noticeably in recent days so the time has come for Ireland to rediscover the intensity levels and accuracy that is such a key tenet of their game.
Result aside, it is vitally important against Samoa that Ireland rediscover the explosive energy and intensity that makes them so difficult to play against. Feeling comfortable within yourself will help restore the internal belief the players need to compete against the best. With a potential quarter-final against South Africa or New Zealand beckoning, that is non-negotiable.