A battered and bruised Ireland look to get their Rugby World Cup challenge back on track when facing Pool A outsiders Russia at 11.15 GMT on Thursday 3rd October in Kobe Misaki Stadium. Join PSA Academies’ Johne Murphy as he picks through the ruins of the Japan defeat and what Ireland need to do to make a positive step forward entering the final stage of pool matches.
EARLY BOOKING OFFER – GET 10% OFF & SECURE YOUR PLACE WITH A 40% DEPOSIT *
*Offer ends on 31st December 2020. Ts&Cs apply.
Well, that certainly didn’t go to plan! It’s fair to say that most of us got blindsided by the result and the style of the defeat to Japan last Saturday. The Irish squad, including Joe and his management, may have shipped quite a bit of negative commentary in the intervening few days but to re-use the cliche, no one will feel more disappointed or irritated than them regarding the hole that this loss has put in our hopes for topping Pool A. Yes, there were contributory factors (Sexton’s absence, the impact of the humid conditions combined with the 6-day turnaround after the Scotland game, the referring interpretations that led to a most un-Irish penalty tally, etc.) but most of all, we saw a tactical masterclass from Japan. They were simply fantastic, bouncing back from an early deficit to impose a really smart, aggressive game plan targeting Ireland’s increasingly recognisable weaknesses in attack and defence. Yes, they got breaks from referee Angus Gardner but they were ruthless in their exploitation of these, with head coach Jamie Joseph and his team having clearly targeted a game which they rightly thought Ireland may be physically and mentally undercooked for.
While the Japanese set-piece impressively held it’s own, it was the fingerprints of attack coach Tony Brown which really stood out, with their skill levels and ability/willingness to attack from deep causing Ireland all manner of difficulty. They deserved their win on the day and have set themselves up brilliantly for an epic showdown with the Scots in the final round of group games. Their biggest challenge may be the increasing expectation of their home nation and how they can rescale the emotional peak of the Irish game against a Tier 1 opposition who know exactly what they are going to be facing. The Scots may be maddeningly inconsistent but they can take some confidence from the fact that they resoundingly beat Japan 45-10 in Rugby World Cup 2015, in the game after the Brave Blossoms had caused a massive upset in beating South Africa.
Back to basics with Sexton at the helm
For Ireland, judging by the media briefings since the weekend, Joe and the squad have quickly regrouped, identified the fundamental issues from the game at the weekend and have gladly moved on to focus on a game against the lowly-ranked Russians that has gone from a formality to something a little trickier. While it’s hard not to have Ireland’s dramatic 14-10 defeat of Georgie back in 2007 rattling about in the back of your head, you can be sure Joe and his team see this match as a good opportunity to right the wrongs and get a bit of positivity back into their campaign. With the 5 day turnaround and the backing up of selection in their first two games, the team selected was always going to need to be significantly changed but clearly injuries are causing increasingly significant risks for us. The selection of Johnny Sexton as a starter and captain is a clear statement of intent and an overdue honour for such a great player. It always felt like Joe would have to go with Johnny after what happened against Japan but given his injury profile, it’s a calculated risk very much taken to get minutes into his legs and more importantly to get control on the pitch and bonus points in the bag. With Conor Murray rested, a huge onus falls on Johnny to dictate Ireland’s game plan against Russia and he’ll need the forwards to gain dominance from early on to get him the quality of ball needed to really dictate things.
Centre’s supply wearing thin
With Chris Farrell having failed his HIA against Japan and Robbie Henshaw still not fit, we’re relying on Garry Ringrose to play his 3rd pool game in a row, coming after a heavy shift in the warm-up games. It’s hard not to feel that we’re treading on very thin ice with his physical loading and the management team will be anxiously watching his GPS stats in the humidity cauldron that is the closed roofed Kobe Misaki Stadium. As could be seen from the Japan game, when Joe chose to put Jordan Larmour into the second centre rather than Keith Earls, we are thin on our midfield cover and the lack of availability of Will Addison looks increasingly unfortunate. On the Henshaw situation, we must be close to the end game on that and if he doesn’t appear for the Samoa game, you’d have to question whether he can be risked in an ‘all in’ titanic Quarter Final clash.
Pack to hit ground early
It’s good to see an all Munster front five selected and these guys are going to carry a massive responsibility to provide the set-piece reliability and go forward ball needed to win this game comfortably. The Russians may be a largely amateur outfit but they showed impressive physicality and commitment for significant spells of both their first two pool games. They’ll know that their best opportunity to unsettle Ireland will lie in the early stages and will be testing the interpretation of referee Jerome Garces and his assistants every chance that they can. Garces will be aware of the critical review Joe has made of the Japan game when the Frenchman called three offside penalties which have since been judged incorrect so it will be interesting to see how much that influences his perception of the approach of the two teams for this one. The Irish back row is a patched up one, with our now only specialist number 8 CJ Stander being rested. Peter O’Mahony will feel he has a big job to do after a disappointing tournament so far, while the contributions of Rhys Ruddock and a fresh but potentially jet-lagged Jordi Murphy will be critical to securing good quality breakdown ball for Luke McGrath.
Backs to the wall
With Sexton back in situ, we can expect a much more aggressive pressure game from Ireland for this one. Aki started great against Scotland before his HIA and he’ll be wanting to get back ahead of Chris Farrell in the centre selection stakes. The back three of Andrew Conway, Keith Earls and Rob Kearney have a massive amount of quality and experience to offer but it’s going to be critical that we show a real cutting edge in this game to rebuild the confidence within the squad. The question is whether players like Earls and Kearney have the freshness in their legs in the prevailing conditions to put in another big shift?
As we’ve seen in previous Rugby World Cups, a shock pool defeat doesn’t necessarily mean that sides don’t or can’t progress right through to the Final but two poor performances in a row would spell big problems for Ireland going forward. Given the expected humidity, Joe and his backroom team will be treading a tightrope in the timing of their use of the bench, hoping that the four-try bonus point is secured by the 50-minute mark, allowing for fresher legs to be introduced to close off the game. The presence of Joey Carbery as scrum-half/out half cover is probably the biggest talking point from the bench selected and it will be fascinating to see if the Munster man does end up going into the number 9 slot. With only two scrum-halves in the squad, it was always going to be likely that Carbery would need time in there at some stage but given the injury concerns around Sexton, it will feel like a missed opportunity if arguably our back up outhalf doesn’t get all-important minutes in his preferred position. I suppose this is a good example of the crazy combination of circumstances that have seen Joe’s best-laid plans for this campaign ripped to shreds.
Nothing bar a bonus win will do!
While it’s fair to say that this match represents a bit of a ‘no win’ situation for Ireland, the bottom line is that anything bar a bonus-point win will be a total disaster. The best-case scenario will be a performance that displays the control, aggression and precision of the Scotland game, getting the bonus point win in the bag early and allowing the full 23 players a chance to express themselves and rebuild confidence. Ex-Blackrock and Leinster Rugby Academy player Vasily Arttemyev and his men will be doing everything to bridge the class gap with aggression and endeavour but an Irish team fully focussed should have the tactical nous and experience to cope with that.
Whilst it might take a little time for the game to settle, I do expect Ireland to build a winning position steadily through their superior set-piece and possession game, securing that bonus-point win. Aside from the win and points, the big hope is that the squad emerges from this one with renewed confidence and no more significant injuries.