As the world salutes Japan, Ireland retreat and regroup

And they say lightning doesn’t strike twice? That’s consecutive World Cups in which Japan has produced the seismic moment of the tournament.

As the world salutes Japan, Ireland retreat and regroup

And they say lightning doesn’t strike twice? That’s consecutive World Cups in which Japan has produced the seismic moment of the tournament.

It’s hard to know who are the biggest beneficiaries of Saturday's 19-12 victory over Ireland, but both the host nation and tournament organisers, World Rugby, fully appreciate the scale of the story.

Regardless of what happens from here on, its going to be extremely difficult to match the amazing scenes at the Ecopa Stadium on the final whistle. I was in Ellis Park in 1995 on the day Francois Pienaar’s Springboks delivered an unlikely World Cup triumph over Sean Fitzpatrick’s unbeatable All Blacks to send the Rainbow Nation into raptures. The frenzied nature of the home support as the Japanese public realised what was unfolding in front of them was incredibly similar to that famous day in Johannesburg.

It was rumoured for years after that shock result in South Africa that the New Zealand squad fell victim to a severe bout of food poisoning in highly suspicious circumstances. Humidity apart, Ireland can have no such excuses after this costly defeat.

The more the game progressed in the second half, the likelier a shock result seemed. Japan were magnificent, dominating to such a degree that they monopolised the territory and possession stakes in that period with returns hitting 67% and 68% respectively in those prized categories.

Quite what this does for rugby in Japan remains to be seen given the vast majority of the nation is blissfully unaware the tournament is even taking place. You wouldn’t have believed that for one minute Saturday though as the Japanese supporters who did make it to the stadium were fully engaged from start to finish.

They were not only a boisterous and vociferous audience but one who fully appreciated the nuances of the game and the significance of what was unfolding. Every marginal gain was absorbed with an in-depth understanding of the significance of the moment.

Early in the game Ireland went for a trademark lineout maul but the Japanese forwards refused to yield an inch. The crowd reaction was instantaneous. A scrum penalty won on an Irish feed was greeted with an explosive response. Every significant tackle was treated as a game-saver and the energy the Japanese players derived from the fever-pitched reactions from the stands drove them to new heights. It was the equivalent of being in the Aviva Stadium when Ireland overturned New Zealand.

While the Japanese players were getting stronger by the minute, Ireland’s were wilting. From the outset, let's be absolutely clear that Japan were full value for this win. To see Ireland gratefully accept a losing point at the death was proof positive of that.

The big advantage Japan carry into this tournament is their ability to play high tempo rugby in a furnace. You really had to be pitch-side to appreciate just how suffocating the conditions were.

It’s the one ace the Japanese carried into battle and how they used it to maximum effect. The other one, offering a golden opportunity to top the pool is a schedule that provided an eight-day turnaround heading into this game, a full week to recover for their game against Samoa and a further eight-day break to prepare for their pool definer against Scotland. The Scots only have four.

Despite delivering two immaculately constructed tries in the opening quarter, with Jack Carty in only his second start in an Irish shirt pulling the strings through the quality of his kick passing, it looked early on as if Ireland had the measure of their hosts.

Who could have foreseen that Carty’s 22nd-minute conversion of Rob Kearney’s try that stretched the early lead to nine points would be the last points Ireland would register in the entire game.

That early buffer was reduced to three points at the break via a series of penalties Ireland conceded due to a combination of Japanese pressure and some questionable decisions from Australian referee Angus Gardner at the breakdown.

Ireland’s game is predicated on retaining possession for long periods which demands total control at the breakdown. On this occasion, Japan managed to frustrate Ireland with the normal clinical efficiency in cleaning out bodies compromised by a lack of explosive energy.

Joe Schmidt was angry after the game with aspects of the referee's performance, especially when they were allowed clean out bodies, way beyond the ball, with impunity. Two very tight offside calls also led to successful penalties that hauled Japan back into the contest which clearly irked him also. Yet, despite those setbacks, this game changed irreversibly on the back of two ill-timed Irish errors.

Not known for their willingness to offload, Ireland showed some deft skills in playing out of the tackle, with good effect, more often than we have seen before. Yet it was one such effort, when Keith Earls attempted to counter-attack with good cause in the third quarter, that ultimately proved costly when his pass failed to connect.

From that turnover, Japan held onto possession for what appeared an age before flying reserve winger Kenki Fukuoka touched down in the corner to inflict a mortal wound. That invigorating score propelled Japan into a lead they never looked like relinquishing.

When Ireland created a chance to reverse that score by kicking to touch off a penalty, a pilfered lineout in the Japanese twenty-two sent an adrenaline rush through the stadium that eventually drove the Brave Blossoms onto another famous World Cup victory.

Never has a team been more aptly named.

The irony from an Irish perspective was that proved their only lineout blemish in the entire game. It didn’t help either that Ireland’s kicking game fell apart completely as the second half progressed. Under intense pressure, Ireland kicked aimlessly down the field with Japan refusing to return the favour.

Instead their impressive back three of hat trick hero against Russia, Kotaro Matsushima, - he is electric - full back Ryohei Yamanaka and Lomano Lemeki ran menacingly into the gaps that Ireland were struggling to plug.

With the energy levels evaporating in the punishing humidity, the familiar defensive line speed that put paid to Scotland’s attacking threat six days earlier was nowhere to be seen. Ireland were left chasing shadows.

As for the decision by Joey Carbery to kick dead at the end? He was absolutely right in my opinion. Protecting that losing bonus point could ultimately prove crucial. Despite this devastating setback, Ireland are still in control of their own destiny in terms of reaching the quarter-final.

They could still even top the pool and stay on course for the clash with South Africa that looked a formality after the events of the opening weekend. That is now dependent on the Scots beating Japan, which appears unlikely at this juncture, but hardly beyond them.

The maximum points Scotland can accumulate is 15. To achieve that, they will have to deliver three bonus-point wins over Samoa, Russia and Japan. By retaining that losing bonus, Ireland can get to 16 with bonus-point wins over Russia and Samoa.

Saturday’s defeat was a massive body blow and will have dented confidence significantly. In addition, confirmation that Jack Conan is out of the tournament due to a foot injury just adds to our problems.

Apart from CJ Stander, Conan was the only other natural No 8 in the squad. He will be missed and, more than likely, his replacement Jordi Murphy will have to be summoned into action immediately on Thursday. Ireland need to regroup quickly and get the show back on the road.

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