Sunday 20 October 2019

Shock to the system

'It is conceivable, if unlikely, that Ireland could still win this pool... but the psychological damage from this defeat will be significant'

Conor Murray fails to conceal his disappointment
as Japan’s players celebrate after the final whistle
in Shizuoka yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Conor Murray fails to conceal his disappointment as Japan’s players celebrate after the final whistle in Shizuoka yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

There was a lot to keep you occupied from Shizuoka yesterday, but let's start with the cold sense of déja vu in the endgame. With the clock close to 80 minutes Ireland were defending a five-metre scrum against a Japan pack not rated by anyone who considers themselves big-time scrummagers. That would have been a pre-match rating. By this point in the piece however a lot of perceptions have been changed about the host nation's ability to make an impact. So never mind the humidity, this is sweaty.

The scoreboard reads 19-12 to Japan. If they score again then Ireland literally would leave empty-handed. As a measure of Japan's composure, their replacement scrumhalf Tanaka is busy telling Conor Murray to get his carcass back onside. While he is having this conversation, for the referee's benefit, Tanaka's forwards are straining every sinew, recruiting every fibre of their being, to hold the position.

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They don't concede an inch. This looks very, very bad for Ireland.

And it took us back to Bordeaux, a balmy summer's evening in 2007 when Georgia had mauled Ireland over their own line.

Again the clock was running low, and this time we were waiting for the video referee to tell us if indeed what we feared had come to pass. A Georgian try at that point and Ireland would have been done for. The shock would have been seismic. The video ref said no, Ireland lived to fight another day, but at that stage a lot of the fight had gone out of them. Another World Cup going south.

Back to Shizuoka. Japan attack off the scrum but Nakajima, their replacement loosehead, lets the ball slip through his grasp. Knowing the value of a breaking ball when they see one, the green shirts win it and suddenly a very important vista presents itself: its first vision sees Ireland going the length of the field and scoring; its second sees Joey Carbery being blocked down for the final nail in the coffin; its third sees him reach for the safety of the dead-ball line and whack the ball in that direction.

By then the clock had slipped into the red. Carbery kicked not just to make touch, but to make touch with some distance. The second it left his boot he chased like a man who feared he might have left it short and the danger was about to represent itself.

This got a fair bit of airplay in the aftermath. It's likely that Carbery was trying to find touch with a view to playing on or else he would have taken the safe route, even if the optics of the losing team - the plus-20-points favourites of the bookies to win this contest - whacking it over their own dead ball line aren't great. So what would have happened if referee Angus Gardner had let it run on? Japan had lost one of their eight lineouts to that point. Long odds on them losing another one there. They were six from six at the scrum. They had conceded three fewer penalties. They had seen more of the ball, and used it really well.

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The scoreboard said Ireland had a bonus point, and it's enough to put one foot in the quarter-final.

The interesting bit is that men in black are now coming into view.

Perhaps the moment of the day came soon after with the interview of South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus in Kumagaya, shortly before his lads steamrolled over their neighbours from Namibia.

Rassie often has a broad beam on his face. This one was ear to ear. Just when you expected the interviewer to ask for his reaction to Ireland most likely being taken off his dance card, she asked about the 'wow factor' of the stadium that surrounded them. Wow indeed.

Joe Schmidt's endorphins meantime have taken a holiday. He is so single-minded that he has no problem blocking out the background noise around the way his team play. It has been a steady sound track: Ireland rely too much on setpiece and powerplays; they are short on creativity; they are collision crazy.

All of those things carried out effectively would have been enough to subdue Japan. Two reasons present themselves now: Japan, who had this game in their sights for a very long time, saw most of those plans come to fruition, from playing with tempo to constantly changing the point of attack.

It never allowed the Ireland defence to settle and generate any line speed. And second, Ireland looked exhausted.

If the Scotland game was exactly as Schmidt had visualised it then this was the opposite. A week ago - well, six days as you'll be hearing a lot about - Ireland's intensity fried the Scots. Long after the game was up for debate his players were still making convincing arguments. They were bristling.

Even Rory Best, whom we consider past his best, was sprightly to the end. He looked less than that yesterday, and the nature of Ireland's second lost lineout, at a key moment in the third quarter, was huge.

For some reason Ireland didn't try to inflict on Japan what they had done to Scotland. They could have tried box-kicking them to death but instead looked to mix it up. Cut away to the coaches' box and both Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown were breathing sighs of relief. They wanted a quick game. Ireland conspired in letting them have it.

The psychological damage from this will be significant. A fourth defeat from 11 Tests this year is hardly a historical landmark in the Irish game but losing to a Tier 2 nation is a shock to the system.

Schmidt will surely get another 10 points in the bag to guarantee a place in the quarter-final, but when we thought it was all about the Boks, now the All Blacks are back in the frame.

It is conceivable, if unlikely, that Ireland could still win this pool without having to do anything extraordinary over the remaining games.

Japan and Scotland between them could open that door. But whoever is waiting is now looking at this Irish side and brushing up on their basics: stand up to the Irish setpiece; match their intensity; win the game.

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