Rugby Union: Japan give Ireland the jitters

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The Independent Online

reports from Bloemfontein

Ireland 50

Japan 28

Rarely can an Irish side have scored so many points and yet come away so shaken and so relieved. They notched up seven tries and half a century of points yesterday, but were given a tremendous shock by Japan who, at one stage, looked perfectly capable of pulling off the biggest upset of this World Cup.

For 30 minutes midway through the match, the Japanese were so dynamic, so quick and so much more determined that they froze the Irish out of the contest. Their determination to run everything started to pay dividends and with three quick tries the momentum was all theirs. Each time the Irish looked to be breaking the deadlock, they came back at them, holding them to a 19-14 lead before half-time, and then a 26-21 lead just after it.

The match had started miserably for the Irish. After only eight minutes, Keith Wood left the field clutching his right shoulder - the same shoulder that caused him problems throughout last season. It was confirmed afterwards that he had dislocated it and that he would be out for the rest of the tournament. A replacement - Shane Byrne of Blackrock - has already been called for.

After Woods' departure, however, the Irish took control. Nothing flash, just solid containment, a tight forward game that resulted in a try every time they forced their way into the opposition 22. First David Corkery scored, driving over after a series of rucks, then Neil Francis spun out of a maul to cross the line, and a Simon Geoghegan try soon followed, the left winger finishing a move which had come from another maul. It all looked so easy, and after 25 minutes the Irish were 19-0 ahead.

The Japanese then sprang to life. Led by Tsutomu Matsuda, a fearless full-back, and Ko Izawa, a strong runner who came in as a replacement back row, their efforts swung the crowd in their favour and drew howls of disapproval when the referee disallowed a try after 32 minutes.

The Japanese pressure did not let up, and two minutes later Sinali Latu, one of their three Tongan imports, crashed over for the first try. The second followed five minutes later - Izawa finishing off a move that stemmed from a penalty at half-way - and the game was alive. When Ireland went further ahead with a penalty try in the 47th minute, Japan replied with a try themselves nine minutes later.

Ireland had missed an embarrassing number of tackles, but here, though, they drew the line. For the last 20 minutes, they regained control and two quick tries gave them a 19-point cushion.

The contest was finished, but the Japanese were not. They pushed Ireland to the last and scored a late consolation try. Ireland play their crucial Group C match against Wales on Sunday; this was hardly the confidence boost they would have wanted.

IRELAND: C O'Shea (Lansdowne); R Wallace (Garryowen), B Mullin (Blackrock College), M Field (Malone), S Geoghegan (Bath); P Burke (Cork Constitution), N Hogan (Terenure College); N Popplewell (Wasps, capt), K Wood (Garryowen), P Wallace (Blackrock College), D Tweed (Ballymena), N Francis (Old Belvedere), D Corkery (Cork Constitution), E Halvey (Shannon), P Johns (Dungannon). Replacements: T Kingston (Dolphin) for Wood, 9; A Foley (Shannon) for Halvey, 15-19; 32-36 for Tweed, 72.

JAPAN: T Matsuda (Toshiba Fuchu); L Oto Daito (Bunka University), A Yoshida (Kobe Steel), Y Motoki (Kobe Steel), Y Yoshida (Isetan); S Hirao (Kobe Steel), M Horikoshi (Kobe Steel); O Ota (NEC), M Kunda (Toshiba Fuchu, capt), M Takura (Mitsubishi Motor Co), Y Sakuraba (Nippon Steel Kamaishi), B Ferguson (Hino Motor), H Kajihara (Katsunama), Sione Latu Daito (Bunka University), Sinali Latu (Sanyo Electric). Replacement: K Izawa (Daito Bunka University) for Latu, 9.

Referee: S Neethling (South Africa).