It’s not the job of the Ireland team to sell this Rugby World Cup but Tom Tierney’s side are doing more than anyone to make the wider public, both here and abroad, sit up and take notice of events at Belfield.
Fortunate in the extreme to claim a two-point win last Wednesday against an Australian side with much more affinity to the sevens game, the hosts followed it up last night with a victory plucked from the jaws of defeat and ignominy against an unlikely tormentor.
Down 14-0 at the break after an error-strewn first-half, the Irish then went and lost centre Katie Fitzhenry to a yellow card three minutes after the restart. Japan, two years on from their male side’s defeat of South Africa in Brighton, looked set to create another shock.
It wasn’t to be but the ‘Sakura’ greeted the final whistle with a long, collective bow to the main stand and were rewarded with a standing ovation. They deserved more than a moral victory and the admiration of strangers for their efforts on another evening of drama.
Like Australia before them, basically.
“Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good,” said Tierney afterwards. He’s right, but good fortune tends to be a transient ally. It’s certainly no replacement for the basic building blocks normally associated with a positive run of results.
That’s the worry for Ireland: the core business of rugby seems beyond them right now. As in their opening game, they were hamstrung last night by a string of errors, forced and unforced, and momentum is a non-starter in such circumstances.
With seven changes in personnel, this was a side of less collective ability and experience than that which jousted with the Aussies, and the lock pairing of Paula Fitzpatrick and Marie-Louise Reilly were particularly missed in the opening half when the lineout misfired.
So, too, did the scrum which conceded the opening five-pointer to a penalty try from a collapsed effort under their own posts — and this to a light Japanese pack — before the introduction of Ailís Egan seconds afterwards at tighthead steadied that ship.
Other leaks remained unplugged and the rate at which Ireland were taking on water escalated two minutes before the break when full-back Mayu Shimizu was found in space wide on the right of the Japanese line after a period of concerted pressure for try number two.
Indiscipline was just another problem.
Ireland had already been guilty of a plethora of high tackles by the time referee Ian Tempest lost patience and sent Fitzhenry to the sideline but it was when down to 14 players that Ireland finally found something within themselves.
Alison Miller blocked down one kick on halfway and popped up a few phases later to claim the first try but any thoughts that the tide had turned green had to wait until after another Japanese siege had been beaten off.
Sene Naoupu was superb here, landing a beast of a tackle in her own 22 before making a clean line break at the other. A lineout and maul later and replacement Paul Fitzpatrick was over the line with Nora Stapleton converting again.
Level now, Ireland were playing a much more direct and physical game and Japan wilted under the pressure. A Stapleton penalty gave the hosts the lead for the first time, before Fitzpatrick claimed her second and Ireland’s third on 80 minutes.
Stapleton ended it with her third conversion, this one dropping over almost apologetically with some help from a post. It was a fitting ending for a game won in such halting fashion by a side that is still desperately searching for a modicum of form.
Ireland 24 Japan 14
M Coyne; H Tyrrell, K Fitzhenry, S Naoupu, A Miller; N Stapleton, N Cronin; L Peat, C Moloney, C O’Connor; C Cooney, S Spence; C Griffin, A Baxter, C Molloy. Replacements: A Egan for O’Connor (28); P Fitzpatrick for Baxter, L Lyons for Peat, R O’Reilly for Moloney and L Galvin for Coyne (all HT); J Deacon for Fitzhenry (53).
M Shmizu; E Hirano, I Nagata, R Kurogi, H Tsutsumi; M Yamamoto, M Tsukui; M Ebuchi, S Saito, S Minami; A Mimura, A Sakurai; Y Sue, S Suzuki, M Takano. Replacements: A Nakajima for Mimura (37); Y Noda for Tsukui (62); Misaki Suzuki for Ebuchi (64); Mizuho Suzuki for S Suzuki (75); A Suzuki for Tsutsumi (76).
I Tempest (England).
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