Sunday 25 February 2018

Brendan Fanning: Japanese humidity turns up heat on Schmidt

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

One of our fondest World Cup memories is from Bloemfontein in 1995. It's unlikely many people can say that about the capital of the old Orange Free State. Perched on the high veldt, back then it was dusty and drab and not very friendly. It has picked up a bit since.

That was where Ireland played Japan in a pool game, four days after being shellacked by the All Blacks in Ellis Park, an occasion that announced one Jonah Lomu to the world.

If there hadn't been much of a crowd in Joburg to witness the unveiling of a phenomenon then there was a good deal fewer in Bloem to see Ireland try to put manners on the Japanese. For the opening half-hour it was like watching men herding cats: fiercely quick felines who knew their only chance was to avoid any contact whatsoever.

Two tries into the contest - for Japan - we remember shouting over to a colleague (it was a vast press box with very few of us in it) asking if he got the name of the most recent scorer in red and white. Clearly stressed by what was unfolding, as the backside fell out of his trip, he hollered: "What? I'm here reporting on Ireland!"

He calmed down soon enough, when Ireland put the wet blanket on the game and mauled their way to a 50-28 win.

We thought of that yesterday morning as Japan got this summer series off to a win, against Romania, in Kumamoto. It was an emotional occasion in a city that suffered a series of deadly earthquakes 14 months ago. Pre-match, coach Jamie Joseph had spoken about the need to deliver a passionate performance for the locals, one that lasted 80 minutes. But having started like a whirlwind they looked pretty uncomfortable as Romania reached into Ireland's 1995 locker, and dealt in pure grunt.

"It was clear and evident that when we get our game going we look good," Joseph said afterwards. "But when we were put under pressure we did not execute our roles as well as in the first half. When you drop your guard at this level, teams come back and hit you."

Watching from the Ireland team hotel in New Jersey was Joe Schmidt. He hadn't needed advance warning about wings Kenki Fukuoka and Akihito Yamada, and when each produced brilliant finishes in the first half, the Ireland coach was already formulating in his head the analysis drill for when they land in Tokyo late tomorrow.

Add in the seven direct hits on goal from out-half Jumpei Ogura and you can imagine the emphasis on keeping the penalty count to acceptable limits, even if there's a good chance Yu Tamura will start against Ireland.

It was pretty hot in New Jersey with a 5pm kick off yesterday, but that was almost comfy compared to the Botanic Garden that awaits in Japan. Romania coach Lynn Howells rang an alarm bell for Ireland.

"The heat and humidity was a big factor," he said. "The players found it very difficult to speak in the first 30 minutes, and our communication and defence suffered."

In a sport where good communication is the starting point, not being able to speak is a bit of a handicap. So what then: semaphore stuff?

"I knew in that heat they'd want to play with a lot of tempo and back their fitness," Schmidt said of Japan. "And they did it very well. You could see how they managed to keep scrums to a minimum - and making just one handling error in the first half helps!

"I think they've got a really good balance in their midfield now, and they'll be as big if not bigger than our lads there on Saturday. And what might surprise some people is that their aerial game is so good. You saw as well the quality of some of their big players: Michael Leitch, for example, is a really smart leader for the Chiefs [in Super Rugby] and his timing for that try was outstanding.

"And I've spoken to Tony McGahan [in Melbourne] about this kid [Amanaki] Mafi at No 8 - and he can really play. So I guess for us the challenge is to make sure they have no time on the ball."

With Paddy Jackson hooking up with the squad tomorrow, it gives Schmidt more selection options, but the challenge in Japan - from the opposition and the conditions - might narrow his focus a bit. In which case injury to others might be the only chance for a couple of players in the 31 to get a run.

It's Test rugby. And as Ireland illustrated in Bloemfontein, pragmatism is the default.

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