Ireland 15 Japan 12
CIARA GRIFFIN’s Ireland story wasn’t meant to finish on a wet Dublin afternoon in front of one full stand at the RDS, but the captain rolled up her sleeves and made the best of it.
Events in Parma put paid to any fairy tale farewell at next year’s World Cup in New Zealand and, having announced her decision to retire this week, the Kerry woman showed just why she was feted in the build-up by rescuing her side with a two-try haul after half-time.
Griffin’s heroics were badly needed. At the break, Ireland were down Hannah O’Connor who saw red for a high tackle and trailing 12-3 to a Japan side who were the better of two bad sides.
Ireland showed character to come back and end Adam Griggs’ tenure on something of a high, but for incoming coach Greg McWilliams this was a worrying performance even if the side was deprived of four of its best players by the national sevens programme which took priority once again.
As the rain swept in from the Simmondscourt End, Griffin emerged from the dressing-room alone before being embraced by each of her teammates.
She wept as she sang the anthem for the final time, but composed herself in time to make hard yards up the middle with an early carry from a lineout that got her into the game.
Despite the conditions, Ireland looked to play with ambition early on but they couldn’t make the most of a slick move that released Neve Jones as O’Connor was forced into touch.
The next wave saw Griffin’s excellent hands release Laura Feely, but Kie Tamai got over the ball and won a penalty.
However, when Makoto Lavemai strayed in front of the clearing kick, Enya Breen was able to slot the penalty and give Ireland the lead.
Ireland had the stronger set-piece and were dominant in the collision, but their inaccuracy and Japan’s excellent work at the breakdown meant they couldn’t add to their lead.
Despite the slippery ball, both sides were determined to play and it resulted in a see-saw game full of turnovers.
Sam Monaghan and Lauren Delany had to be alert after a brilliant quick-tap from scrum-half Moe Tsukui saw No 8 Ayano Nagai surge into the ’22, with the second-row making the tackle and her full-back turning the ball over.
Japan’s enterprising attack got its reward in the 18th minute, with a cleverly worked move off a good lineout releasing centre Mana Furuta. She wasn’t held in the tackle, so she sprang quickly to her feet, found Ria Anoku on her shoulder and she put Norika Taniguchi over for a try.
Ayasa Otsuka missed the conversion, but Ireland were forewarned of the visiting threat.
In contrast, their own execution was off the money and as the half went on they began to lose their way, passing up territory through their own inaccuracy.
Their day got even worse when O’Connor raced out of the defensive line to tackle Misaki Suzuki but got her angles wrong. Referee Clara Munarini took a long look at the replay and it got worse with every viewing, the No 8s head clearly making contact with the flanker’s chin and there was no surprise when she reached for a red card.
Japan made their advantage count, showing their superior attacking shape and skills to release hooker Nagata into the ’22. Neve Jones made a couple of big defensive interventions, but when Ayano Nagai tapped a penalty, the Irish defence couldn’t stop Seina Saito from powering over from close range.
Otsuka converted and Ireland needed a brilliant pair of covering tackles from Aoife Doyle and Delany to deny Nagai putting the scoreline beyond the hosts as they trailed 12-3 at the break.
Ireland came out of the traps with a point to prove after half-time and fittingly it was the captain who drew them back within range by applying pressure on Furuta’s clearance and pouncing on the charge-down to score.
Breen was wide with the conversion, but Ireland kept on coming and a Naoupu outside break and pass for Doyle forced a penalty from Japan and when Ireland kicked the ’22 they took the direct route and Griffin forced her way over under the posts from close range.
Breen’s conversion made it 15-12 and Ireland were unlucky not to extend their lead when Doyle touched down, only for ref Munarini to harshly chalk off the score for a Delany knock-on.
Breen missed a kickable penalty and, as the half wore on, a tiring Ireland invited Japan on and had to defend their line stoutly to cling on to their three-point lead.
They did, just about, as Cliodhna Moloney got over the Japanese ball deep into injury time to earn the relieving penalty.
Breen put the ball into touch and the team lifted Griffin to the skies as she signed off with one last win.
Ireland: C Griffin 2 tries, E Breen pen, con;
Japan: N Taniguchi, S Saito try each, A Otuska con
IRELAND – L Delany; A Doyle (S Tuohy 66), E Considine, E Breen, L Sheehan; E Breen, K Dane; L Feely (K O’Dwyer 45), N Jones (C Moloney 45), L Djougang; A McDermott, S Monaghan; C Griffin (capt), H O’Connor, E McMahon (A Caplice 66).
JAPAN - R Anoku; H Nagura, N Taniguchi, M Furuta, K Imakugi; A Otsuka (M Yamamoto 56), M Tsukui (M Abe h-t); S Kato, N Nagata (A Kojaki 74), M Lavemai (S Minami 45); K Tamai, O Yoshimuri (W Kitano h-t); S Saito, A Nagai (I Nagata 51), M Suzuki (Y Ito 59).
Ref: Clara Munarini (FIR)