After a convincing opening Pool A victory against a disappointing Scotland, Ireland move on to Shizuoka and a clash with tournament hosts Japan. Join PSA Academies’ Johne Murphy as he looks forward to what should be a fantastic occasion.
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After what can only be described as the perfect start to our Rugby World Cup challenge, Ireland head to Shizuoka for a late afternoon kick off versus a hugely motivated Japan. With the hosts having beaten their opening match nerves before dispatching a brave if limited Russia, they’ll be acutely away that any result, even a losing bonus point, will give them an edge in their battle against a wounded Scotland for the runner up position in Pool A. As such, and with fervent home support for what will be hot and sticky conditions after a 6 day turnaround, I’m sure they will get full respect from Joe Schmidt’s squad and backroom team.
Carty aims for perfect 10
While the selection of Jack Carty as starting 10 for Saturday may have caught some be surprise, it was coming after the Connacht man has really grown in the shirt through the tournament warm up games and an extended outing against the Scots in game one. It’s great to see a guy like him make such strides so rapidly and it puts us in such a strong position, especially with the injury doubts lingering around both Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery. On what will only be his second start for Ireland, it’s a big challenge for the 27 year old to keep a cool head in what will be a pressure cooker atmosphere, with the Japanese likely to want to batter his channel and attack Ireland off broken field ball all over the park. Joe and his team will be putting a huge onus on Carty and half back partner Conor Murray to pin the Japanese back with smart tactical kicking, including some serious aerial pressure to test a Japanese back three that looked very dicey at times in their opening outing. Having Joey back on the bench is a big plus and hopefully he’ll get good minutes in the second half when the game has opened up a bit. He needs game time, not only for his match fitness but to try and stake his claim for that increasingly competitive back up outhalf spot.
Cavalry makes welcome return
The selection of Rob Kearney and Keith Earls is also a big plus, with both men knowing that they are under increased pressure after the impressive outings by Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway in the opening pool game. The experience of both men will be key in keeping our tactical & positional discipline in face of the expected first half onslaught by Japan, with their strength in the air likely to be a real tactical weapon. The humid conditions should ensure that physically they get a proper test too, which can only help get their fitness up to speed, as long as they avoid any recurrence of their niggly injuries. It’s pretty important that we get through this clash with as clean a slate as possible on the injury front but that will be secondary to the thinking in preparation. In the midfield, the selection of Chris Farrell is entirely justified after his blistering cameo against Scotland and it should be really interesting to see how he gels with a resurgent Ringrose in what looks like a really exciting pairing. While Aki’s replacement looks precautionary, the ongoing absence of Henshaw is a worry and we’ll be hoping that he’s fit for a run out against Russia next. The only man who could count himself as a bit unlucky to miss out on the matchday 23 for this one is Andrew Conway and while he’ll back the squad rotation, he’ll be itching for another outing against Russia to further make his case for a place in the 23 in the knockout stages.
While we’re on the subject, it was great to see Farrell express himself with that audacious pass out the back to Luke McGrath against Scotland. It spoke not just of his own confidence but also of the license given and trust being shown by Joe Schmidt in his squad. All of a sudden it seems the fog has lifted for this squad, the body language has changed and the team are back doing what they do best, locking in on a big but fully scoped mission. I’ve been in touch with a few of the squad by WhatsApp and I’ve been struck by how grounded and focussed they are. Hopefully nothing changes this weekend but it really does feel like the belief is back coursing through their veins again. And there’s nothing like seeing a full squad of 31 putting their hands up for selection, driving standards and buoying confidence.
Business as usual up front
With an unchanged pack, Joe has given his frontliners an opportunity to prove to themselves and the rest of us that their clinical supremacy against Scotland was more to do with Ireland’s excellence than Scottish incompetence. Rory Best certainly answered his critics with his best performance in the last year, hitting his lineout men for all 12 throws, doing massive work in the loose, getting an impossibly difficult try touchdown and putting in a full 80 minute shift. It’s hard to see him being asked to do another 80 this time but he’ll want to be handing over to Sean Cronin around the 60 minute mark with a healthy lead on the scoreboard. Elsewhere in the pack, we’ll be hoping to see more standout performances from our key tight five men, while Peter O’Mahony will be anxious to get a full game under his belt after being one of the few that didn’t really get a chance to show his form in the opening match. Referee Angus Gardner has had his card marked by Japan via the media coverage around Ireland’s supposed illegal scrummaging and while that may be of limited risk, the increasing pressure on all the RWC refs to card any foul or dangerous play means that Ireland really need to keep their discipline and accuracy in trying to stop what can be a very agile Japanese side.
Pressure game to force game
In terms of the tactical match up here, I think it’s pretty clear where both sides are going to go. Joe and his staff will be emphasising the need for a strong start from the pack, giving the half backs the time and space to really test the Japanese defence in the air and through the midfield. Joe will have dusted off another few of his trademark power plays to try and get linebreaks and territorial advantage in behind the Japanese front line defence. Any chance we get in the Japanese red zone, I expect the Irish pack to really turn the screw with both the scrum and lineout maul, draining the Japanese legs and upping the mental fatigue as the game progresses. For their part, Jamie Joseph has shaken things up in his starting XV by dropping captain Michael Leitch to the bench as one of four changes to his starting line up. Himself and his squad will know that even a losing bonus point here could be massive for their hopes of getting out of the Pool ahead of Scotland so his men are going to lack nothing for motivation in their efforts here. The bigger question is whether they can manage the emotion and pressure of the occasion after looking like they mentally overcooked on the opening night. They will need to be incredibly organised, disciplined and focussed through the whole 80 minutes if they want to live with this buoyant Irish side and that looks like an ask too far for this one.
I’m expecting and hoping for a really competitive battle of styles in the first half, before Ireland’s big game experience and superior bench puts some distance between the sides in the second half. Here’s to a convincing Irish win by 18-20 points, a clean bill of health and another big step forward for this group.