DONAL LENIHAN: And this was just for starters.....

ANALYSIS of Ireland’s encouraging start to World Cup 2015 has to be put on temporary hold as a consequence of what Japan achieved in defeating the most experienced South African side ever fielded when the sides met at Brighton Community Stadium on Saturday.

Championship soccer outfit Brighton & Hove Albion never provided entertainment like this for the locals.

Japan’s electrifying 34-32 defeat of the two-time world champions has not only turned this tournament on its head but proved that with the right attitude and total belief, anything is possible.

This is the most incredible result in the history of the game and to register it on the biggest stage makes it even more special. Prior to this, Japan had only one win in 24 World Cup outings to show for their efforts.

They were truly heroic and have set this World Cup alight on only the second day of action. The tournament marketers can’t believe their luck. It appears cruel in the extreme however that they have to somehow come down immediately from that emotional high with only a four day turnaround before meeting Scotland in Kingsholm on Wednesday.

The fact that tournament organisers also managed to attract a crowd of 68,923, despite an average ticket cost of €150, for Ireland’s opening game at the Millennium Stadium and given that the whole of Wales is saving their hard earned cash to follow their own side, suggests that this World Cup promises to be really, really special.

Six weeks on from Ireland’s opening warm up game at the same venue and after 11 tortuous weeks of grind on the training paddock, the Irish players will have been mightily relieved to step out onto a World Cup arena less than 24 hours after the giddy excitement of watching the opening ceremony and game from the solitude of their team room.

That so many Irish fans travelled to witness a game that Ireland were always going to win offers an indication of what lies ahead over the next month and hopefully longer. From here on in their every move will be scrutinised.

On that basis, and with echoes of those disappointing opening salvos from the 2007 (32-17 v Namibia) and 2011 (22-10 v USA) events hanging in the air in the build up to this one, it was really encouraging to see Paul O’Connell’s men dealing with the challenge posed by Canada with such ease by bagging a four try bonus point as early as the 35th minute. The Irish dressingroom was a very positive place to be at half-time.

That said, the Canadians also deserve massive credit for the manner with which they made Ireland work so hard for points after the break, the highlight of which was managing to keep them scoreless in the pivotal third-quarter.

Part of the reason for that related to the fact that O’Connell was in the sin bin for running a dodgy line with the Canadians in a good attacking position only two minutes into the second half.

Yet without a word being said, his 14 colleagues on the field lifted their defensive efforts even further in order to save their captain’s blushes.

A big question mark hanging over Ireland coming into this tournament surrounded their potency in attack after disappointing outings against Wales and England. The signs on that front represent the most positive aspect of this performance and not just because of the seven tries scored. It was the quality of the passing that was most pleasing, reminiscent of Leinster at their best under Joe Schmidt.

The untried midfield combination of Luke Fitzgerald and Jared Payne was a resounding success even allowing for the limitations of the Canadians. But let’s not get carried away, far tougher challenges lie ahead. It was good to see that Schmidt’s power plays off the set piece were back in vogue and that augurs well. Ireland were holding back on that front and the hope is that more is being held in reserve for the Italian and French challenges.

Defensively Ireland were also much improved but that was always going to be the case with a tournament of this magnitude guaranteed to lift the intensity levels to heights that were both psychologically and physically difficult to hit during a warm up phase of games that ran parallel to a heavy training programme.

Ireland appear to have got that vital conditioning aspect of their preparations spot on and, with more games, will only get better from a rugby perspective. The fact that Cian Healy saw 20 minutes of action and came within an inch of scoring a try at the death will also add to the feelgood factor within the squad.

The other big plus was the performance of Iain Henderson in the second row which adds massively to Ireland’s ball carrying ability. With Sean O’Brien back to his bullocking best and Healy also on the mend, the workload is about to be spread about more evenly with less dependence on the Carlow man.

That and the fact that Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray were in total command at half-back has set the tone for the bigger tests down the track. Sexton will be particularly pleased with his performance having shipped a bit of flak from his former coaches in Paris last week. He looks primed to stamp his mark.

THE other thing confirmed from the weekend’s action is that it will be a straight shootout between Ireland and France to top Pool D with both looking certain to advance. The only other contender, Italy, seemed way off the pace in their opening game against the French on Saturday. The only caveat here is that Italy are a different side when their captain Sergio Parisse is on board and he was badly missed in this contest.

France were deserving winners, but as always, Italy were an awkward and messy side to play against especially at the breakdown where they will do anything to slow your ball down. Quite how referee Craig Joubert failed to issue a yellow card against an Italian side that conceded eight penalties in the opening 20 minutes and a whopping 19 in total is a complete mystery. The big difference between this French side and the Six Nations version is they are much fitter and that enabled them to defend superbly right to the final whistle. Their scrum is also top notch with two interchangeable front rows of equal power and menace.

They look a far more united and focused bunch and will undoubtedly raise their game even further against us. Louis Picamoles continued his excellent form from the warm up games and is in the shape of his life. On the downside, the loss of their most potent attacker in Yann Huget to a serious knee injury is a massive blow. A good opening weekend then for Ireland and an absolutely sensational one for the tournament as a whole with the Brave Blossoms from Japan living up to their name and reputation in spectacular fashion. Keep it coming.

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