Ireland 60 Japan 5
THE spring feels a long time ago now. Back then, there were huge question marks over the direction of travel under Andy Farrell and significant pressure on his attack coach Mike Catt.
The win over England released that valve, but this window was always going to reveal if that was the jumping-off point for a team on the up or a flash in the pan for a side under the cosh.
On this evidence, this Ireland team is becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Japan were awful, but it's only two weeks since they ran Australia close and they had plenty of the team that downed Ireland in Shizuoka in 2019 on board.
Rarely, can they have played against this level of pace and intensity. They were monstered by an Irish side led by an athletic, skilful pack that featured a front-row that will strike fear into opponents in the loose as Andrew Porter revelled in the freedom afforded to him by his move across to loosehead prop. Jack Conan won man of the match and linked the play brilliantly, behind them Jamison Gibson-Park made the most of the clean, quick ball.
Next week, the All Blacks will ask far more serious questions but this Ireland team will approach that test with relish.
Rarely has an Irish team moved the ball with such freedom. Having averaged five offloads a game in Farrell’s first 16 games, they threw 14 in a scintillating first-half and finished with 18.
They were aggressive, accurate and ambitious with Johnny Sexton at the tiller. The skipper marked his century of caps with 15th try.
If they keep playing like this, the IRFU will have no problem in filling the vast amount of empty seats in the upper tier regardless of the high price they’re asking for tickets.
From the off, Ireland looked to play with pace and vision. Their pack marched their first maul forward, while James Lowe was popping up off his wing and it only took three minutes for the Leinster’s Kiwi to cross for the first try.
Atsushi Sakate’s wayward throw handed Ireland a scrum, Lowe kicked in behind and when the return was aimless Ireland pounced.
Jamison Gibson-Park spotted space on the left wing and bypassed Garry Ringrose to find Bundee Aki. He shifted it on to Conan who comfortably drew Kotaro Matsushima to put Lowe away in the corner.
Sexton converted and, although they had a quick spell defending a cleverly worked Japan lineout, they were back on the attack soon enough as Lowe’s fellow winger Andrew Conway got in on the act.
Lowe did well to keep the ball in on the left, before Tadhg Furlong cleverly kept the ball moving through the hands. Sexton, Josh van der Flier and Tadhg Beirne all had touches before Aki took contact. The ball came back quickly and Gibson-Park intelligently stabbed the ball in behind for the Munter winger who picked it up brilliantly and beat the covering defender to score.
Sexton nailed from the opposite touchline and it wasn’t long before he was lining up another.
Again, Japan got into the Ireland ’22 and this time Beirne got up to deny Sakate. Conan and Ryan tidied up and, when the visitors conceded a penalty, Sexton found touch.
Ireland went to their maul, marching forward comfortably to put the defence on the back foot. Gibson-Park found Aki who released Sexton. The out-half spotted Hugo Keenan and he delivered a sumptuous long, left-hander wide to Conway who wasn’t going to be caught.
This time, Sexton missed the conversion but he delivered a penalty soon after as Ireland’s ambition was rewarded as they released Lowe from their own ’22 and surged forward with Furlong and Conan prominent. They’d to settle for three points after Gibson-Park lost his footing, but it was impressive stuff.
Yu Tamura just about denied Conway his hat-trick, but Ireland kept upping the physical stakes.
Furlong monstered Matsushima, before Ringrose won a penalty after a hit on Timothy Lafaele that forced a penalty.
Sexton went to touch and the centre made the most of it when the attack broke down in Sexton’s hands, picking and going around the corner and offloading out of the tackle for Gibson-Park to score.
Japan were a mess and things got darker for them as hooker Sakate saw yellow for a repeat offence and Ireland were frustrated not to add to their 29 point haul as Furlong knocked on before scoring and they messed up their final attack.
They came out after the break looking to make their advantage pay. Kelleher’s first throw sailed over Caelan Doris, but he nailed the next one and when Craig Millar came in from the side of the maul, Sexton went to the corner. This time, the James Ryan couldn’t gather under what looked like illegal pressure and that let Japan off the hook.
Not for long. After they’d won a penalty, Lafaele missed touch and Keenan judged a return kick perfectly into the corner, winning the lineout as a result under the new 50:22 rule. Ryan claimed Kelleher’s throw, Ireland attacked on the blindside for the captain to mark his 100th cap with a try. The Aviva Stadium erupted.
Ireland kept on going; Furlong made a big bust and found Porter on his shoulder. He took contact, so they moved it wide and a brilliant Conway offload found Conan and he put Aki away in the corner.
Japan got in for a try they scarcely deserved as Kazuki Himeno broke the line and found Siosaia Fifita in space, but Rikiya Matsuda missed the conversion.
Things got scrappier as Farrell emptied his bench and the rain grew heavier, but Ireland didn’t let up in terms of their physicality and they continued to hammer into tackles.
They got their reward as Ringrose powered over from another strong attacking scrum and Joey Carbery converted to make it 48-5.
Conway put them past the half-century with his hat-trick try in a moment that summed Japan’s day up. Ryoto Nakamura looked to have Conor Murray’s chip covered, but he misjudged the bounce and the winger pounced gleefully.
They closed it out with a try from their other centurion Cian Healy and Carbery made it 60 to round out an impressive day’s work.
Scorers: Ireland: A Conway 3 tries, J Lowe, J Gibson-Park, B Aki, G Ringrose try each, J Sexton try, 4 cons, 1 pen, J Carbery 2 cons;
IRELAND – H Keenan; A Conway, G Ringrose, B Aki (K Earls 67), J Lowe; J Sexton (capt) (J Carbery 62), J Gibson-Park (C Murray 58); A Porter (C Healy ), R Kelleher (D Sheehan ), T Furong (F Bealham ); T Beirne (I Henderson 58), J Ryan; C Doris, J Conan, J van der Flier (P O’Mahony 51).
JAPAN – K Matsushima; D Riley, S Fifita, T Lafaele (R Yamanaka 39-h-t HIA, 69), R Nakamura (Yamanaka 55-69) HIA), S Fifita; Y Tamura (Y Niwai 40-51, R Matsuda 55), Y Nagare (N Saito 55); K Inagaki (C Millar h-t), A Sakate (Y Niwai 64), J Koo (AA Valu h-t); J Cornelsen, J Moore; B Gunter (Y Tokunaga 27) (T Tatafu 59), K Himeno, P Labuschagne.
Ref: N Amashukeli (Georgia)