By Phil Rice
A comfortable bonus-point victory over Scotland will have boosted Ireland’s confidence, and they are now in pole position to top their group.
On Saturday they face hosts Japan (KO 8:15am) and coach Joe Schmidt will be anxious to ensure that his key players all stay fit for the major task ahead – a quarter final against South Africa, most likely.
The Irish pack dominated their Scottish counterparts and ensured the dangerous Scots’ backs never had quality ball to use.
This was the ruthless Ireland team that beat all-comers in 2018. We can expect a similar dominant performance from the Irish forwards on Saturday, as Japan will field a smaller and lighter pack than Ireland’s powerful eight.
There was little constructive play from Ireland’s backs as the situation and conditions dictated that a tight controlled performance was required.
But the Irish defence was watertight and Scotland never looked like crossing the whitewash.
The game was not without its casualties, though, as Peter O’Mahony injured his neck and departed half way through the first half.
Bundee Aki had an unsuccessful HIA and left the field before half-time. He will now go through the appropriate protocols.
Josh van der Flier had several stitches in his eyebrow and may be rested for Japan.
Johnny Sexton strained his quadricep and was replaced by Jack Carty during the second half.
That could pave the way for Joey Carbery to start.
Japan were less than impressive against Russia in their opening game and they will be apprehensive at the prospect of taking on a confident Irish team.
As usual, Schmidt will take nothing for granted and will have analysed the hosts’ strengths and weaknesses in detail, and will be anxious to gain another bonus point-win and confirm Ireland’s position at the top of the group.
Maximum group points will also allow Schmidt to field his reserve players for the two remaining pool matches against Samoa and Russia.
The Irish coach will have the prospect of a huge challenge in the quarter-finals at the back of his mind, and the need to ensure that his leading players are in the best possible shape for that encounter.
Japan showed that in wingers Matsushima and Lemeki they have two excellent finishers.
Ireland will be keen to starve them of the ball by pressurising their midfield and ensuring their wide players get little opportunity to show their speed.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) September 25, 2019
The Irish pack dominated Scotland up front which gave the dangerous Scottish back three little opportunity to show their attacking threat. They will look to do the same against Japan.
Despite his facial stitches, van der Flier returned to the fray and his speed around the field restricted any opportunities for line breaks by the Scottish backs.
If he is unable to play this week it may be that Rhys Ruddock will be required to fill that role.
CJ Stander was named man of the match and his emotional interview after the game showed how badly he wanted to put in a big performance. It was his best showing for at least 12 months.
Rob Kearney and Keith Earls were reported to be fit for last weekend’s match, but Schmidt decided to put his faith in Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway.
Both repaid their coach with solid performances, particularly under the incessant aerial bombardment from the Scottish half backs.
However, it would be no surprise if Kearney and Earls return to the side on Saturday.
While Schmidt will have one eye on the quarter-final challenge on the horizon, he will not take Japan’s threat lightly.
The Cherry Blossoms’ defeat of South Africa in the last World Cup showed they cannot be underestimated. Schmidt’s attention to detail is legendary and he will ensure his team is primed for action this Saturday.