Joe Schmidt hands out a couple of new caps as Ireland rack up big score against Japan
Japan 22 Ireland 50
In the tunnel of Shizuoka’s magnificent Ecopa Stadium, Joe Schmidt was just about to field questions from the Irish press corps as his opposite number, Jamie Joseph, was heading in for the Japan press conference. Two Kiwis abroad, earning their corn at what that country does best: pretty much anything to do with rugby.
“Well done, Joe . . . talk during the week,” goes the giant of the two Josephs. You’d wonder how that conversation will unfold. The one in Japan will lament how his side didn’t come close to doing what they had planned. The other will be in overdrive downplaying the scale of the win.
So what will happen in Tokyo next Saturday? Ireland will reach their target of three from three on this tour. They will have stopped talking about heat and jet lag. They will be a bit slicker in everything they do. Japan too will improve, and they may well have centre Tim Lafaele fit again, having lost him somewhere between the captain’s run and kick-off. But we will have only a slightly different version of what unfolded here.
Japan are rebuilding from the heights they scaled at the World Cup two years ago. They don’t have the depth to get to that level again when they host the gig in two years’ time. Currently they are as watery as their stadium wi-fi. Paying punters, with phones at the ready, will expect an uplift on that front as well.
As for the cast of characters in next Saturday’s final instalment, Ireland may not have available all those who trotted out here at the start. Simon Zebo, Paddy Jackson, Luke McGrath and Finlay Bealham all had to be replaced. They couldn’t replace McGrath when he went off late in the day having got a poke in the eye. “I don’t think there is anything serious for us,” Schmidt said. “A couple of blood injuries but they seem fine.”
Well, a bit more than that. Zebo got a knock on an existing knee injury and Jackson had sore ribs on top of a knock on his shoulder. Bealham and Dan Leavy — who returned to finish the game — were stitched.
At least Keith Earls is in good nick. Thanks to another two tries here — on top of the same return in New Jersey — he eased past Denis Hickie’s record of eight in the one season. He has never looked better. Around him there were a clatter of other big performers. Andrew Conway recovered after a slow start and was second only to Earls in metres made. Garry Ringrose had a heap of defensive work to do and gobbled it up, as did scrumhalf McGrath. His bravery is beyond question, and between big cover tackles and standing under high balls knowing that he would be clattered for his troubles he was utterly reliable.
In the pack Jack Conan added to his growing reputation. He was top of the carrier class on 121 metres and it gave him two tries — which on top of one last week plus his nine for Leinster illustrates his form this season. On the other side of the ball he led the tackles with 11, one ahead of Niall Scannell, whose consistent grunt is turning him into a valuable Test player.
Add it all up and Ireland were in a different class to their hosts who kicked too often when they should have been making Ireland work, and losing energy.
“The conditions were slightly less hot than we thought they were going to be because we were here yesterday for the captain’s run and it was searingly hot,” Schmidt said. “On the back of a strong scrum we managed to control a lot of the first half, but you saw how dangerous the Japanese team are when they get time and space on the ball. They were super in the last quarter of the game.”
Well, yes, but they were chasing an uncatchable target. And the multiple changes in the Ireland side took away from their defence. By half-time the tourists were 31-3 ahead. A two-try burst from Leavy, with Japan tighthead Heiichiro Ito in the bin, did a lot of damage. Jackson was six out of six, so it all stacked up.
Ireland were first out of the traps in the second half as well, through Conan, and even though Japan got better as the game went on another little burst from Ringrose and Earls kept the scoreboard ticking over. The crowd of 27,381 were delighted with the late charge from Kenki Fukuoka — he’s a nightmare to mark — and Yutoka Nagare, but it won’t fundamentally change the landscape for next week.
Included in the traffic off the bench were new caps Rory O’Loughlin and Kieran Treadwell. As we stand, only the uncapped John Cooney and the unused Sean Reidy are getting a bit edgy. They should be sorted in Tokyo.
Scorers — Japan: R Noguchi, K Fukuoka, Y Nagare tries;
R Matsuda 2 cons; Y Tamura 1 pen. Ireland: D Leavy (2),
J Conan (2), K Earls (2), G Ringrose tries; P Jackson 5 cons, 1 pen; R Scannell 1 con.
Japan: R Noguchi; K Matsushima, W Tupou, D Carpenter (R Yamanaka 68), K Fukuoka; Y Tamura (R Matsuda 59), F Tanaka (Y Nagare 55); K Inagaki (S Ishihara h-t), S Horie (Y Niwai 54), H Ito (yc 25-35), K Yatabe, U Helu (S Matushashi 55), M Leitch (capt), A Mafi (H Tui h-t) Y Tokanuga.
Ireland: S Zebo (T O’Halloran h-t); A Conway (yc 51-61), G Ringrose (K Marmion 68), R Scannell, K Earls; P Jackson (R O’Loughlin 62), L McGrath (78 no rep left); C Healy (D Kilcoyne 59), N Scannell, (J Tracy 55), John Ryan (F Bealham 63; J Ryan 78), Q Roux, D Toner (K Treadwell 63), R Ruddock (capt; J O’Donoghue HIA 63-71), J Conan (J O’Donoghue 76), D Leavy (J O’Donoghue, blood 50-59).
Referee: M van der Westhuizen (South Africa).