Lessons learned at last in hard-fought tour finale
Japan 13 Ireland 35
After a sweaty week in Tokyo, where you weren't sure if the heavens were going to open or the sun would split the stones, we got the game we were supposed to get last week.
A tour that statistically was a runaway success, with three wins from three, 21 tries scored and eight new caps added to the list of options for next season and beyond, got a thoroughly enervating finish. Joe Schmidt admitted afterwards that the scoreline flattered Ireland.
Just as well it panned out like this, for more of what we got in Shizuoka last week wouldn't have been much use for anybody. Certainly the crowd of 29,354 felt a little better about their team than a week ago. With these two meeting again in the World Cup pool in two years' time, a tonking for the Brave Blossoms would have been bad for business.
You never felt the combination of the 72 per cent humidity on the back of 29 degree heat, along with a very aggressive home team, would give us what would have been a huge upset, but certainly it was hard going. And good value for both sides.
Nowhere were Japan more impressive than in their battling for space immediately after the tackle. They rocked Ireland back in this area, making it a hard life for Kieran Marmion.
"Yeah, I think it came on the back of the way they defended in terms of the line-speed they brought," Rhys Ruddock said afterwards. "The quality of their tackle was a lot better than last week. They were very physical in that area which allowed them to put pressure on our ball, and the fact that it was relentless: it wasn't just one or two phases - even deep into our possession they were still managing to put that threat on the ball. So it was really tough - evident in how physically drained everyone was at the end of the game."
It would have contributed to Ireland giving away nine penalties. Ten is the target for England, for example, per game, but against Tier 2 opposition that was more than Schmidt had budgeted for.
"It was very, very hot out there," he said. "The players were fatiguing early in the game, so it was great to get a good start and hang on at the finish. I think we got exactly what we expected: it was very tough, very physical."
The great start for Ireland was a sickener for Japan. The home side had turned over Ireland out wide - by winning the space - only to drop it under minimal pressure when they sifted it across the face of the Ireland defence. When they dropped it Garry Ringrose pounced, and scored at a canter. Paddy Jackson's conversion made it seven and the tourists knew they had been blessed.
It was 5-2 on tries in the end. Josh van der Flier and Marmion had Ireland 21-3 ahead after 17 minutes, and Ruddock got over just after the half-hour. They were treading water for a long time thereafter, not scoring again until the 78th minute through Sean Reidy.
What we got in between was mixed. The scrum was nowhere near as comfortable as a week ago, or indeed in New Jersey, and while the lineout delivered all bar one from 14, it wasn't the handy launching pad of the first Test.
Still, there were a few outstanding performers. Ruddock has been an excellent captain, on and off the field. It was a worry that he needed two HIAs in the last eight days, but he seemed fine. At 23 carries yesterday he was far and away the most willing worker, but he had great support from Jack Conan.
When the Japanese defenders were initially stopping Irish attackers in their tracks, Conan consistently won collisions. He has had a very strong trip, giving Leinster and Ireland a real alternative to Jamie Heaslip.
When you consider that Ireland made up two-thirds of the Lions back row yesterday, and factor in injuries to others, the options available there for Schmidt are mind-boggling.
Second row too is a source of more comfort for the coach. Kieran Treadwell came off the bench in Shizuoka for his first cap and did very well; he started here and was replaced by James Ryan, winning his second cap, who did even better, carrying very effectively when Japan were doing their best to tire out Ireland.
Jacob Stockwell has been the pick of the new backs. He had to stand under a lot of high ball here and against the US a fortnight ago and came through the exams with flying colours. It helps that physically he's all there.
The last debutant on the trip was John Cooney, who made it onto the pitch with seven minutes left. And nearly scored. At last he is fit, and keen to crack on with Ulster in a few weeks. Like the others he will have learned a lot over the last few weeks.
"Just getting to know the differences in culture, the expectations around what you have to do off the pitch as much as anything," Schmidt said of the knowledge gained. "Timing yourself between travel times to get to training venues that took 45 minutes when we're used to walking down the road and straight onto the pitch. There's a lot of things that have built a bit of awareness."
And will those newest to the process have a sniff in November?
"Yeah, look we're incredibly open-minded about it," he said. "In every bracket of games (from November to Six Nations to here) we've played there are new players who have emerged."
They're a bit wrecked now. They'll be raring to go in a matter of weeks.
Scorers - Ireland: Ringrose, Van der Flier, Marmion, Ruddock, Reidy tries, Jackson 5 cons; Japan: Matsushima, Yamada tries, Ogura pen.
Japan: R Noguchi (R Yamanaka 68); A Yamada, K Matsushima, Y Tamura, K Fukuoka; J Ogura (R Matsuda h-t), Y Nagare (F Tanaka 53); S Ishihara (K Inagake 49), Y Niwai (S Horie h-t), T Asahara (T Watanabe h-t), L Thompson, U Helu (K Yatabe 64), M Leitch, A Mafi, S Matsushashi (Y Tokunaga 68).
Ireland: A Conway; K Earls (T O'Halloran 55), G Ringrose (R Scannell 79), L Marshall, J Stockdale; P Jackson, K Marmion (J Cooney 73); C Healy (D Kilcoyne 61), J Tracy (N Scannell 51), J Ryan (A Porter 61), K Treadwell (J Ryan 51), D Toner, R Ruddock (capt) (S Reidy 55-61 HIA), J Conan, J van der Flier (S Reidy 68).
Referee: JP Doyle (England)
Sunday Indo Sport