By Phil Rice
A week is a long time in politics but also in World Cup rugby. Ireland were outstanding in disposing of Scotland, only to be brought crashing down to earth by hosts, Japan.
Looking comfortable, 12-3 up after 20 minutes, Ireland lost their shape and momentum and Japan grasped their opportunity.
While it may be good for the competition as a whole that the hosts won, that is little consolation for Ireland.
Joe Schmidt was complimentary about Japan’s performance, but he must have been seething about the way that Ireland lost their way.
Strategically Ireland showed naivety in their lack of tactical flexibility.
They rarely used the aerial route but every time they did Japan dropped the high ball. Instead of pursuing this route, Ireland persisted in battering into the impenetrable Japanese wall.
This limited tactic never looked liked being successful and Japan grew in confidence as they realised that Ireland were easily contained.
Schmidt must have wished for Johnny Sexton’s leadership, while Jack Carty showed some good touches, he didn’t change tactics when it was crying out for a different approach.
Just because the one-off runners policy worked against Scotland, didn’t mean that it would work against Japan’s leakproof defence.
The Irish team was crying out for strong leadership on the park, but there was none forthcoming.
Japan’s glaring weakness against Russia was their inability to deal with the high ball in the air. Yet Ireland mysteriously didn’t test them in that area.
On Thursday (3 October) Ireland face a very average Russian side that only gained entry to the World Cup as the third default team, after three countries were eliminated for fielding ineligible players.
Schmidt will rest some of his frontline players but will still be aware that Ireland need two bonus point wins from their final two group games against Russia and Samoa.
Ten points from those games will guarantee qualification for the quarter-finals.
However, if Japan win their remaining games Ireland would probably face tournament favourites, the All Blacks, at that stage.
Russia are not incapable of causing Ireland problems and maximum points from the remaining games is not a certainty. Particularly with Lyn Jones at the helm.
Russia’s 25-year-old open side flanker Tagir Gadzhiev was a revelation against Japan and will surely be snapped up by a European club side after the competition.
While the Russian pack is big and strong they lack mobility and Ireland will want to play an expansive game using their speedy outside backs.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) October 2, 2019
Joey Carbery should thrive in such a game and it will be no surprise if he starts at flyhalf.
A comprehensive victory would rebuild Ireland’s confidence and get the show back on the road.
However, the lack of direction and leadership on the field is becoming a worrying factor. It was evident during the Six Nations and again last weekend.
Sexton’s experience and awareness will be required at the quarter-final stage and Schmidt may be tempted to keep his main playmaker under wraps until then.
The final group game against Samoa is likely to be a very physical encounter. The South Sea Islanders had two yellow cards issued against them within two minutes when playing Russia.
POOL A FIXTURES & RESULTS
Ireland 27-3 Scotland
International Stadium Yokohama, Yokohama
Japan 19 v 12 Ireland
Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa, Shizuoka
IRELAND v Russia
Kobe Misaki Stadium, Kobe
Thursday 3rd October
kick-off 7.15pm local time/11.15am Irish time
IRELAND v Samoa
Fukuoka Hakatanomori Stadium, Fukuoka
Saturday 12th October
kick-off 7.45pm local time/11.45am Irish time
They have had two judicial committee enquiries already at the World Cup for dangerous tackles.
What they may lack in skill they are determined to make up for in physicality. Expect Schmidt to rest his key players for that match on Saturday week.
Ireland need a strong showing on Thursday. Their defeat against Japan is the biggest shock result of the World Cup to date.
The players looked shell-shocked after the game and they will need to restore their self-belief. The management and player leadership group need to exert their control.
Last week’s result was a shock but need not be a disaster. They need to learn from their mistakes and move on.
Scotland will be desperate to produce a strong performance against Japan and should they get a win over the hosts, it could give Ireland the opportunity to still top their group.