Not too many teams will put Japan to the (samurai) sword the way Ireland did on Saturday afternoon.
The cohesion of Andy Farrell's troops was in full view after a couple of weeks together in camp. They treated the supporters at the Aviva to a free-flowing, progressive, attacking performance.
Japan weren’t at their usual exciting best, which would happen to any team that throw away five of their own lineouts, while losing out on three other potential set pieces by not finding touch from a penalty kick. Most teams with that kind of return from their set piece would find it hard to get a foothold on the game.
And that’s what happened, Japan had little possession and territory in the first half, while Sexton marshalled his players into great attacking positions to put the fixture to bed at half-time on his 100th appearance.
It’s not to take away from the Irish performance, this is a Japanese team that we felt would challenge Ireland and potentially cause an upset, or at the very least make it a frustrating test match for the home side, ahead of the visit of the All Blacks next Saturday afternoon.
The excitement and willingness to play was evident from the hosts after a sloppy opening two minutes. Ireland clearly worked on clearing the inside channels early, using one of their pods of three forwards as a decoy, while sweeping the pass out the back to Sexton who regularly ran into the pocket of space and played Josh Van Der Flier and the barnstorming Tadgh Furlong into holes down the middle of the pitch.
James Lowe offered his pace and power in these positions in the Irish half as well and had a handful of line breaks out of defence. It all looked a bit easy for Ireland if we’re being honest. It was a noticeable move away from the kick exits that we’ve become used to. Ireland were either conscious of not giving the Japanese attacking game plan the possession to play, or the big focus was on developing their own attacking game plan.
The Irish centre partnership was in fine form too. The return of Bundee Aki made a huge impact in the middle of the pitch, with some subtlety and fantastic decision making from Ringrose on both sides of the ball, it was always going to be challenging for Japan. It only took a few minutes for them to dictate the flow of the game.
Ringrose worked hard to get around the corner from a Gibson-Park pass, which caused the Japanese defender to stutter. Aki went through the hole, feeding Conan and Lowe scored in the corner. Lowe couldn’t have asked for a better start to bring back the confidence that his play is synonymous with.
Gary Ringrose has huge rugby intelligence. He looks like he has more time to make decisions than others on the pitch. He regularly poked out of defence in a controlled manner to spook the Japanese attackers and pushed them back into where Ireland were strong. He also understands the attacking game well and opens spaces for others. He assisted Jamison Gibson-Park with an offload after carrying the ball through a quickly set ruck.
Anything Andrew Conway touched turned to gold and he finished off a hat-trick of tries late in the game, but he was doing a lot of the dirty work, winning possession in the air several times on the right flank and chasing every kick as if the fixture depended on him alone. He got the reward he deserved in the 73rd minute to finish off a day that will be hard to forget.
However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Ireland either. There were a few mistakes early in the game and a top 3 team wouldn’t have let them find their flow into the match. They may have been chasing a lead at that stage, had it been a more ruthless opposition with a stronger set piece. They certainly wouldn’t have been afforded such easy territory and the same amount of possession.
When you think about it, Ireland were preparing for this game for two weeks. They looked as if they had something figured out with the Japanese defence, causing them to hit in from the outside by sweeping the pass into midfield from the edge of the pitch, through their forwards hands and Sexton delivered blow after blow to get Ireland on the front foot.
It showed as well when Keenan was able to catch and pass on the edge to put Conway over for a score. It was almost as if he knew the kind of pressure that Japan closed with on the edges in defence.
Japan had already lined out against Australia, which gave the Irish team something to analyse. Ireland hadn’t played yet so Japan would have been making an educated guess, based on the way Ireland set up with a weakened team during the summer and during the last 6 Nations.
Andy Farrell's side will now have a much shorter turnaround before facing a much bigger task in taking on the All Blacks. With only the bare week between games, their preparation will have to be a lot different. They will need to review their performance against Japan very early in the week, they may have even done it straight away on Sunday to have a fresh start at previewing the All Blacks for the week.
Even in the week of training, some of the session must be spent reviewing or correcting some plays from the week before, whether it is their breakdown accuracy, set pieces or general flow in attack, but the time spent in training either has to double up as a review and preview or else you’re wasting time in preparation for the team that is coming next.
The All Blacks had the luxury of resting a few guys who are likely to be involved this coming weekend in Dublin. The likes of Perenara and Beaudan Barrett might have had a bit more time to prepare in the background for the Irish game and they rested some of their forward pack to be fresh for the challenge in Dublin.
The All Blacks will remember losing in Dublin during their last visit and will no doubt use it in the week ahead. For Irish rugby, I hope for their own sake that they can back up last weekend’s surprise 55-point win with another positive showing. They don’t need to win the game, but a positive performance is much needed.
It doesn’t take much for the Irish public to jump down the throats of Irish rugby. Whether it’s ticket prices, the colour of the jersey, the provincial split or the age of their players, the players have been criticised quite heavily since the last disappointing World Cup display.
To win back the fringe supporters and to keep building their confidence and momentum, it’s imperative that Ireland put it up to the All Blacks, and our more experienced players need to drive the standards even higher
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