Ireland need to get off to storming start in Yokohama

Ireland need to get off to storming start in Yokohama
Head coach Joe Schmidt during an Ireland Rugby Press Conference at the Hotel New Otani Makuhari in Chiba, Japan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile.

With the GAA season finally reaching its conclusion and Dublin’s successful drive for five completed in such an impressive fashion over Kerry on Sunday, nothing short of Ireland lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy itself can deny Jim Gavin’s men the team of the year accolade when the award season rolls around in December.

With the capital in celebratory mode, the way has been cleared for the Rugby World Cup to take centre stage over the next six weeks.

After eight years of meticulous planning, the tournament organisers will be hoping for a seamless opening weekend of action now that the threat posed by typhoon Faxai, which wreaked havoc with England’s arrival in Japan last week, has abated, at least for the moment.

This tournament promises to be challenging in so many ways. On top of the potential threat of the disruptions that run parallel with the typhoon season, players also have to deal with soaring temperatures coupled with humidity levels as high as 90%.

When South Africa played the host nation Japan in their final warm up game in Kumagaya ten 10 days ago, the humidity was such that a number of the big Springbok forwards lost up to 10lbs during the game.

Managing the players after in such circumstances means the medical and conditioning staff have as big a role to play over the next few weeks as the coaches.

The biggest concern facing the organisers is the threat of a game having to be postponed in the event of a typhoon.

If that were to happen at the pool stage, it would not be rearranged. The schedule is just too tight to accommodate it. Instead, the cancelled match would be recorded as a 0-0 draw with each side awarded two match points.

The fallout from such an occurrence could result in a country not making the knock-out phase due to no fault of their own.

Imagine if Ireland beat Scotland in their opening game but lost out on qualification by only accumulating two match points from a postponed game against Russia after both Japan and Scotland each managed a maximum five-point return from their game against the same opponents.

Hopefully, that is not a scenario any side will face and the eventual winners emerge on merit, by virtue of their performances on the field of play. At least, if a postponement occurs from the quarter-final stage onwards, there is a two-day window available for the game to be rescheduled.

The potential variance in weather conditions pose other challenges in that teams will need to be ready to adjust their game plan for the prospect of playing in torrential downpours in one game while dealing with the difficulties associated with heat and humidity in another.

Reports that Wales were putting baby oil on their rugby balls in training (with Scotland applying shampoo instead) in an effort to replicate difficult handling conditions gives an indication of what to expect.

The forecast for the big clashes scheduled for Tokyo this weekend will be a bit more familiar, especially for the Irish players as, despite the 23 degrees temperature predicted for the game against Scotland, torrential rain is also expected. That might even suit us better.

The opening weekend of pool action promises so much with some potentially cracking encounters that could offer an early indication of what is likely to transpire down the line with three big contests pitching Tier 1 Nations together.

The most significant from our perspective is the long-awaited opener against Scotland when Ireland will be required to hit the ground running. Win that game and Joe Schmidt’s men take control of the pool. Ironically, losing it would not be catastrophic, on paper at least, in that Ireland should still end up meeting one of NewZealand or South Africa in a quarter-final.

The damage to confidence in defeat, however, would be significant.

Twenty four hours earlier, at the same stadium in Yokohama, which stages Ireland’s encounter, a clash fit for the final itself — it might even prove to be an early audition — takes place when the All Blacks meet the Springboks.

 Jacob Stockdale during an Ireland Rugby gym session at the Ichihara Suporeku Park in Ichihara, Japan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile.
Jacob Stockdale during an Ireland Rugby gym session at the Ichihara Suporeku Park in Ichihara, Japan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile.

I look forward to taking that one in before turning my attention to matters of a far more serious nature back at the same venue the following day.

A few hours earlier, fellow Rugby Championship contestants Argentina and three-time World Cup finalists France meet in another potentially explosive contest in Pool C.

France have looked like a side reborn in their warm-up games and it will be interesting to see if they will carry the impressive attacking fluency that returned to prominence in their warm-up games against Scotland and Italy into the tournament itself.

Argentina have had a torrid time of things lately, having lost their last nine tests on the bounce coming into this.

No longer the bruisers up front, they appear to be caught in two minds as to how they want to play. They delivered big performances in all of the last three tournaments and despite their poor form, cannot be discounted as strong contenders for the knockout phase. This clash is hugely significant as the winner will already be in pole position to make the quarter-final and will approach the other key pool game against England with confidence.

It’s important for all kinds of reasons that the tournament catches fire this weekend, especially in those three big match-ups. Four years ago, the tournament in England was set alight right from the outset when Japan defied all the odds to produce the greatest shock in World Cup history, beating SouthAfrica 34-32 in Brighton.

The following day I watched New Zealand play Argentina at Wembley Stadium in order to get a close-up view of the Argentinians, given that Ireland were likely to meet them in the quarter-final.

Walking up the famous Wembley way, the most amazing reactions followed a large group of Japanese supporters heading in the same direction.

Fans from a variety of countries were drawn to the large contingent walking in their Japanese jerseys up the famous thoroughfare.

The reaction along the route was amazing as everybody stopped and clapped them in recognition of their famous win the previous day. They, in turn, bowed to their newfound audience, slightly embarrassed but hugely proud. It set the tone for what was to follow.

Hopefully, the opening games over the next week will make a similar impact as this tournament looks to find its feet. Since the participating teams arrived in Japan over the course of the last week, the agenda has been set by events off the field.

Unfortunately, we have already seen players denied their opportunity to participate such as rookie New Zealand flanker Luke Jacobson due to recurring concussive symptoms. That is a horrible situation for any young player.

Even before a ball has been kicked in anger, its been a challenging few day for Schmidt with injuries and niggles to Robbie Henshaw, Rob Kearney and Keith Earls raising question marks over the composition of the backline to start against the Scots.

That is not what you want so early in a tournament as physically demanding as this. Hopefully, things will have improved by Sunday.


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