Wednesday 13 December 2017

Unless Japanese strike when iron is hot, Ireland should steam ahead

The Ireland team warm-up during a squad training session in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
The Ireland team warm-up during a squad training session in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

A couple of hours after Joe Schmidt announced his side for tomorrow's Test in Shizuoka's Ecopa Stadium, we pulled out of Tokyo Station on the Hikari Express for Hamamatsu. For the next 90 minutes we travelled at speeds over 200kph through terrain where it was hard to see where one town ended and the next one started.

Space is at a premium in this part of the world. You have to be hard-working to nail it down. That sums up Japan.

The people here are unfailingly helpful and polite. You stop them in the street to ask directions - they whip out their phones and have it sussed in seconds. If you make any effort with the local lingo they, unlike France for example, they react like you have paid them a compliment rather than insulted their mother tongue. It's like nothing is too much trouble. The diametric opposite will unfold for Ireland tomorrow, starting at 6am (2pm local time). With the sun high in the sky and humidity also a factor, it won't be a good time to be running around. And Japan want to set an inhospitable pace.

A week ago the Romanians were literally gasping for the first half-hour as Japan reached a level of speed and accuracy which had their coaching staff well pleased. That is their starting point tomorrow.

If last week there was a sense that Ireland would have a fifth gear if they needed to pull away from the USA Eagles then that feeling has been left behind in New Jersey. As it turned out the Americans struggled to get out of third. They tried to play possession football to tire out the tourists, and had their skills not been so bad it might have worked. Different country, different time-zone, and we expect a radically different story.

The heat was an issue in New Jersey. The heat and the jet lag have taken their toll this week. Given the travel, the training week is reduced to one big hit: yesterday. Even by then players were struggling with their sleep pattern and levels of fatigue.

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Click to view full size graphic
  • Read more: Joe Schmidt makes six changes for Ireland's clash against Japan

"Some guys are flat because they are waking up at 1am or 2am and they can't get back to sleep," Schmidt says. "They might get back to sleep at 4am or 5am and that's it - they're up. They're under way. But by 8pm they're starting to flag so it's one of the challenges. That's been a great learning experience for players who return for the World Cup. And a big cohort of these players will be coming to the World Cup."

That's for another day. For now the trick is to avoid giving Japan good memories to take into our pool in that tournament in two years' time. And the good news for Ireland is that Japan have suffered on the injury front.

"Losing locks doesn't help our challenge but we're really pleased with our work this week," their coach Jamie Joseph said. "We've had a look at our maul defence where Romania got on top of us toward the middle stages of the game and put us under a lot of pressure.

"Ireland's set-piece is strong, both scrum and lineout, and a real threat to our game. But we know they're strong so our focus has been about playing our way and developing our game."

The continued absence of big forwards hurts their bench especially, with two flankers named instead of a flanker and a lock. Ireland's plan will be to make this a set-piece game. "They tend to play quickly from their set-piece as well and so we'll probably want to cluster them together a wee bit and keep them under control," Schmidt says. "They'll want to play with the width that they love to play with and make us chase them. What I'd be worried about a bit is if we end up chasing shadows after 30 minutes because if they do get their game going they are really dangerous."

To achieve this Schmidt remodelled the backline - leaving only Garry Ringrose and Keith Earls in the starting line-up, with Earls shifting from right wing to left to accommodate Andrew Conway. Significantly, the only change in the pack is to start Dan Leavy ahead of Josh van der Flier. The coach says this is purely a selection decision, and it's far from like for like.

Leavy has had a great season for Leinster, largely because for the first time in his short enough career he has been fit (his Leinster games now read 26-10-3 over the last three seasons). Because he's a bit of a freak physically he has a tendency to go for the money shot every time. He was barely on the field last week when he shot out of the line leaving the kind of hole the Japanese would turn into points.

But he has the capacity to make other sorts of holes as well. Japan's back-row is the strongest unit in their line-up, so Leavy and his Leinster colleagues have a job to do. So are they looking like they're ready to go to work?

"The energy was good," Schmidt said of Thursday's heavy session. "The accuracy? We're going to have to keep working and make sure that we can take another step up because what you can't do is be loose with the ball. Then you have to chase them again. We're going to have to make sure we are accurate in what we do. Hopefully we took a bit of a step today towards getting some cohesion again."

Certainly the opening half hour will be murderous. You'd imagine Joseph has bargained on his charges making some hay while the sun is brightest, for if Ireland aren't on their hands and knees at that point, and trailing, then the home team know they'll have missed a trick.

This may not be the prettiest Test match you've ever seen, but it's about getting the job done. And catching the bullet back to Tokyo chasing three from three next weekend.

Japan v Ireland, Live, eir sport 2, 6.0am tomorrow

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