Ireland may have taken a giant leap forward, both in terms of form and towards the World Cup quarter-finals, but if you listen to those inside the camp, there is still one major obstacle to clear.
Japan stand between Joe Schmidt’s team and a likely last-eight match-up with South Africa, Rassie Erasmus, Felix Jones and all. In previous tournaments that would not strike fear or caution into Irish hearts but in 2019 things are a little different.
The Springboks’ defeat to the Brave Blossoms on the opening weekend of the 2015 tournament means no-one will be taking Japan lightly, especially not when they are the hosts and their home support is nothing if not vocal and excitable.
Tokyo Stadium on Friday night, as they defeated Russia to get rugby’s greatest spectacle up and running, was an emotional tumult that promises to carry the home nation onto their second game in Pool A this Saturday in Shizuoka.
Ireland, you can be sure, are taking nothing for granted, despite the hugely impressive manner of this victory over Six Nations rivals Scotland in the rain yesterday.
Take the thoughts of Iain Henderson as a sample of the Irish mindset immediately afterwards. The lock had put in a thunderous performance, his linebreak out of midfield providing the platform for the opening try of the game on five minutes as second-row partner James Ryan trampled over a lacklustre Scottish line.
“That Scottish team has a lot of threats, we talked about that and worked on that all week,” Henderson began.
Caution is understandable and important for they had just played a Scotland team that had given their travelling media the feeling they had started to believe their own publicity about being contenders.
This was a brutal hammering of the Scots, by four tries to none. Schmidt’s men were first clinically efficient in converting opportunities into points over the first hour to build a 24-3 lead and then defensively sound as the rain came down in a second half that stripped Gregor Townsend’s team of any chance to play the expansive game that was their only hope of climbing back into the contest.
Ireland were as devastating as Scotland were disappointing, head coach Townsend taken to task in his post-match media conference for admitting his players had lacked aggression, accuracy and energy, a staggering assessment for the opening match of a World Cup campaign.
As for Ireland, there is also the feeling they answered a lot of the criticism that followed a previously miserable 2019 in which England, twice, and Wales had comprehensively outclassed them.
Yesterday in Yokohama, they displayed all the confidence and intent of a team at the top of the world rankings. The mothballs came off Ireland’s maul in fine style as Rory Best clattered over for the second try on 14 minutes, the 37-year-old captain starting his fourth World Cup and playing the full 80 after replacement hooker Niall Scannell replaced flanker Josh van der Flier in the closing minutes.
Tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong made it three tries for the forwards on 25 minutes, Conor Murray converting having assumed the goal-kicking duties from Johnny Sexton, to send Ireland in 19-3 to the good at the interval.
When a Ryan Wilson error in the 56th minute was exploited brilliantly by a jinking Jordan Larmour to set up Andrew Conway for the fourth try of the night, Scotland were done, Ireland were cruising and slipping effortlessly into defensive mode for last quarter, comfortable in their systems even when replacement lock Tadhg Beirne got himself needlessly yellow carded for killing the ball at a ruck.
Even defending short-handed for 10 minutes will have been a worthwhile exercise for a tournament in which anything can happen and probably will, but whether or not this was an Ireland performance good enough to beat the Springboks is another matter that will not be put to the test until the quarter-finals.
Now, head coach Schmidt must decide how best to manage his squad across the three remaining games, but he hinted yesterday that against Japan on Saturday there will be no leeway for rotation unless forced to by the inability of Peter O’Mahony and Bundee Aki to complete return to play protocols this week following failed HIAs or the absolute necessity to bring Sexton out of hibernation.
Schmidt knows he will need his players at an absolute peak for the knockout rounds having watched the Boks go toe to toe with the All Blacks in the same stadium the previous night.
“I thought it (All Black v South Africa) was a heavyweight contest last night. We might be light-heavyweight or middleweight, I don’t know, but it was a super game. South Africa were bristling and the All Blacks were brilliant at times with those two tries they got.
“It’s a very different situation from the World Cup last time, where we were trying to build our way through the pool knowing France was the highest-ranked opponent we were going to have and it was going to be a real mountain to climb into that game.”
But the focus for now is firmly on the next assignment: “Japan went through the Pacific Nations Cup unbeaten. They’re a dangerous team and if they get some tempo, we might be on the back foot. We’ve got to take it step-by-step. We won’t be talking too much about South Africa. If we maybe can get past Japan, we’ve got Russia and Samoa, hopefully, at that stage, we can potentially manage players.”
J Larmour; A Conway; G Ringrose, B Aki (C Farrell, 21), J Stockdale; J Sexton ( J Carty, 58), C Murray (L McGrath, 58); C Healy (D Kilcoyne, 48), R Best - Captain, T Furlong (A Porter, 48); I Henderson (T Beirne, 58), J Ryan; P O’Mahony (J Conan, 21), J van der Flier (J Conan 13-21, N Scannell, 74), CJ Stander.
Yellow card: Beirne 68-78
S Hogg; T Seymour (D Graham, 58), D Taylor (C Harris, 65), S Johnson, S Maitland; F Russell, G Laidlaw (A Price , 62); A Dell (G Reid, 62), S McInally – Captain, W Nel (S Berghan, 53); G Gilchrist, J Gray (S Cummings, 65); J Barclay (B Thomson, 53), H Watson (F Brown, 38), R Wilson.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)