Disjointed Ireland 'get out of jail' to avoid upset
Ireland 24 Japan 14
Ireland have three days to right the many wrongs of their first two disjointed wins but ultimately they go into Thursday's pool decider against France with everything still to play for.
Japan threatened to cause one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history but just like they were forced to do in their opener against Australia, Ireland had to rely on their dogged resilience to get them over the line.
That steely toughness will only take the hosts so far however. Their countless errors were again costly as they trailed 14-0 at the break but they deserve credit for the manner in which they scored 24 unanswered second-half points.
This Ireland team don't make things easy for themselves but even by their own standards, this was far too close for comfort.
They never should have found themselves in such a position that left their World Cup dream dangling by a thread but the Japanese were fully deserving of their lead after ripping Ireland to shreds.
"At the end of the day, we win a match against France, we're into a semi-final," a mightily relieved Tom Tierney reflected. "That's the funny thing about it. The hassles and the worries and the regrets and the relief from the first two games are forgotten about.
"We have a great opportunity and that's the beauty of it. We can't feel sorry for ourselves and we won't feel sorry for ourselves leading into France.
"There is relief but now there is going to be a real hard mindset going into the match on Thursday."
Defensively, Ireland were a mess and without their defensive leader Jenny Murphy, their line speed suffered.
It wasn't until the 73rd minute that they eventually took the lead for the first time as Nora Stapleton held her nerve to slot a late penalty before replacement Paula Fitzpatrick made sure of a precious win with her second try.
Attentions now turn to France who have waltzed through their opening two games without either Japan or Australia laying a glove on them.
Tierney and his players are only too aware that major improvements will be needed if they are to have any hope of competing in the semi-final when the tournament moves to Belfast.
"We got of out jail, without a shadow of a doubt," the head coach admitted.
"We won't worry about it too much because it's in the past now but we have to rectify key areas. We're still in the tournament. We're not down by any means yet. We'll be firing on all cylinders. We'll give it absolutely everything against the French.
"We're going to be underdogs. We won't be expected by anyone, yourselves or anyone outside (the squad) to win, which is fine. But we'll go out there and give it absolutely everything.
"We're not going to shy away from the fact that our handling errors were high again tonight. They're basics, the core skills of the game. We're going to work on it."
Not much was expected of this Japanese team, particularly after they shipped 72 points to France in their opener but their skill-set was vastly superior to that of Ireland's.
In truth, the home side's first-half display, in which they were punished for three high tackles, was appalling.
The warning signs had been glaring before Japan eventually struck for the opening try shortly before the half-hour mark. A huge shove from their front-row deep inside the Ireland 22 won a penalty against the head but worse was soon to follow.
Japan opted for another scrum from the resulting penalty and again they demolished the Irish pack as referee Ian Tempest went under the posts and awarded a penalty try to put the visitors into a 7-0 lead that they fully merited.
Ireland continued to struggle to get out of their 22 and Japan made them pay. The TMO had ruled that Iroha Nagata hadn't grounded the ball but it mattered little as a minute later, Japan injected pace and width into their game-plan and when Ali Miller shot up off her line, Mayu Shimizu scored to stun the sold-out crowd at the Belfield Bowl into silence. Shimizu converted her own try for a 14-0 half-time lead to leave Ireland with a mountain to climb. But climb it they did to keep their dream alive.
Tierney would have been furious with his side's penalty count but his talk at the break fell on deaf ears as Katie Fitzhenry was shown a yellow card three minutes after the restart for a fourth high tackle.
"That was a big concern for us going into the match because we are physically bigger than the Japanese," Tierney reasoned. "There were a couple that were loose by us and a couple that you couldn't do anything about. We deserved that yellow card but thankfully the girls came together. That was one of the key areas that stopped the momentum from our perspective."
Fitzhenry's sin bin sparked Ireland into life however. Miller's 45th-minute try, after she did brilliantly to block down a kick, started the comeback. Stapleton's conversion halved the deficit as Ireland finally gave the home crowd something to shout about.
Ireland offered precious little in attack out wide but when they went back to basics and set up a powerful rolling maul after the hour mark, Japan had no answer.
Fitzpatrick was credited with the try and Stapleton's conversion was soon followed by a nerveless penalty to put her side in front with seven minutes remaining.
Fitzpatrick's second try deep in stoppage time put some gloss on the scoreline but it by no means papered over the cracks.
There is only so much that Ireland can improve between now and Thursday but they go into that pool decider knowing that France will not hand them a similar get-out-of-jail-free card.
Ireland - M Coyne (L Galvin h-t); H Tyrrell, K Fitzhenry (J Deacon 52), S Naoupu, A Miller; N Stapleton, N Cronin; L Peat (R O'Reilly h-t), C Moloney (L Lyons h-t), C O'Connor (A Egan 28); C Cooney, S Spence; C Griffin, A Baxter (P Fitzpatrick 43), C Molloy (capt).
JAPAN- M Shimizu; E Hirano, I Nagata, R Kurogi, H Tsutsumi (A Suzuki 76); M Yamamoto, M Tsukui (Y Noda 61); M Ebuchi (M Suzuki 64), S Saito (capt), S Minami (M Kataoka 74); A Mimura (A Nakajima 36), A Sakurai, Y Sue, S Suzuki, M Takano (Y Shiozaki h-t).
REF - I Tempest (England)