History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes. Four years on from their iconic, historic win over South Africa, Japan showed that they remain a force to be reckoned with as they stunned Joe Schmidt’s Ireland in a storming performance that defied expectation. Ferocious at the contact, vibrant in attack and underpinned by an unwavering sense of self-belief from start to finish, the hosts fought back from two tries down to record a thrilling 19-12 victory here in Shizuoka.
That the evening ended with a spectacular fireworks display, prepared on the off-chance of an improbable win, demonstrated the extent to which Japan quietly believed themselves capable of an upset. Still, as the air filled with smoke and falling ash after a riotous explosion of lights and sound, it took a moment or two to acknowledge what had unfolded – and what it all meant.
After back-to-back wins, the first coming against Russia in the tournament’s opener, Japan now stand on the brink of a first-ever quarter-final berth at the World Cup. It marks a remarkable achievement for a Tier Two side that, since the famous win in Brighton, has dropped its minnow status and emerged as a genuine force in the sport – one now capable of muscling in among the elite heavyweights that dominate the landscape.
As for Ireland, the result and performance poses serious questions of their World Cup credentials. After the emphatic win against Scotland last weekend, Schmidt’s men looked to be returning to their best. But here, in the hot and humid conditions of Japan’s south coast, the Irish looked a former shadow of the side that had strolled to victory in Yokohama.
This was Ireland’s first ever defeat at the hands of Japan, having won each of their previous seven encounters by an average margin of 31 points. Although they secured a precious bonus point, the men in green must make sure of their remaining fixtures against Russia and Samoa, with a possible quarter-final showdown against the All Blacks now on the cards.
It was an afternoon that had started with a palpable sense of anticipation. They had come in their masses. From Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka and beyond. Filling the Shinkansen trains, seat after seat, row after row, Japan’s fans poured into the local area with high hopes of an upset. But for the opening stages of this encounter, such aspirations seemed fanciful at best.
Over the course of eight bruising minutes, Ireland delivered a two-try punch to suggest there would be nothing atypical about this game. Jack Carty pulled the strings in both instances, having made a bright start to the match as Johnny Sexton’s stand-in, the Leinster man sidelined with a thigh injury.
For the first score, Carty’s high hanging cross-field kick was placed to perfection, finding Garry Ringrose in the far right corner as the centre landed on the turn to beat his man and touch down. The second, too, came from Carty’s boot. With Ireland pressing in their opponents’ 22, the Irish fly-half spotted space in behind, exploiting it with a softly-weighted dink. The contested ball fell kindly to Rob Kearney who, from five metres out, barrelled over for his team’s second.
But this was to be the beginning of the end for Ireland as Japan slowly but surely stirred into life. The resistance they offered was not immediate. It was a gradual process that crystallised with each crunching tackle, each surging wave forward, each defensive turnover. The inner belief had been there from the start – as exemplified by Kotaro Matsushima’s early chance off a smart kick-through – but it took until the closing stages of the first half for the Japanese to truly appreciate what was possible.
With Ireland struggling to reassert themselves after Ringrose and Kearney’s tries, the penalties were slowly drawn. Fly-half Yu Tamura set about his business, kicking three of his four chances. Heading into the break 9-12 down, Japan believed.
The Brave Blossoms started the second half in a similar vein to the first. In the minutes that followed the restart, Ireland spent much of this time in their own half, pinned down by an aggressive Japanese pack that was beginning to intensify its physicality at the breakdown and hold its own in the set-piece.
Come the 60-minute mark, Jamie Joseph’s side had their breakthrough. After a mix-up between CJ Stander and Chris Farrell off an Ireland scrum, the referee signalled for a Japan put-in at the 22.
After a huge shunt, a wall of red and white shirts rolled forward on the crash ball, picking and driving, sucking in the Irish, moving ever closer to the white line. Eventually the trigger was pulled. The ball went left through three sets of hands, quick as a flash, and there, hugging the touchline, with no opposite man in front of him, was Kenki Fukuoka to dot down.
Tamura’s conversion took the score to 16-12 before a late penalty in front of the posts extended the lead by three more points. A Fukuoka break in the dying minutes had threatened to rub salt into the Irish wounds but a last-ditch tackle from Keith Earls limited the damage. That the substitute had failed to add a second mattered for little.
As the whistle finally blew and Japan’s exhausted bodies fell to the turf, a sense of what had been achieved washed over the crowd. Another momentous victory for this ascendant side and the promise of knockout rugby. A fitting reward for a nation that is continuing to thrill and delight in equal measure on the grandest of stages.
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