Rugby World Cup 2019
Japan 19-12 Ireland
Japan were sensational – no other word will do – in winning an all-time classic of a rugby match. Ireland’s World Cup ambitions suffered a shattering blow when they could not withstand a ferocious onslaught from the hosts in a quite magnificent contest at Shizuoka Stadium.
Japan produced a performance even more epic than their historic victory over South Africa in the Miracle of Brighton at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. They dominated the second half and could have won by more than the seven-point margin.
Joe Schmidt’s team, so confident and accurate against Scotland in their opening game, were pushed to their absolute limits and then beyond by a Japan team who were cheered rapturously throughout, with chants of “Nippon! Nippon!” ringing out time and again.
Ireland had won the previous six encounters between the sides by more than 20 points and bookmakers’ analysts did not see Japan getting any closer this time, rating them 9-1 underdogs. How badly wrong they were.
Unlike Scotland, beaten 24-3 by Ireland in their opening match, Japan showed up – in a massive way. Before the game, there was much focus on whether they could penetrate Ireland’s blitz defence and find the space out wide for their strike winger Kotaro Matushima.
Four minutes in, Timothy Lafaele sent an inviting grubber kick down the right flank and Matsushima was on it in a flash. A kind bounce was all he needed, but it broke sharply left and Jacob Stockdale got across just in time.
Another early chance for Japan went begging when Yu Tamura failed to get hold of a kickable penalty and then the script began reverting to the expected lines.
First Keith Earls had the sniff of a try before being bundled into touch, then Ireland began pounding the home defence with one-out runners.
When Japan killed the ball in a ruck, fly-half Jack Carty reacted brilliantly, his deft chip hanging in the air until Garry Ringrose won it and twisted his away past Ryohei Yamanaka to score in the corner.
Carty missed the conversion but he was playing with uncommon composure for a player starting only his second test. His opposite number Tamura reduced the gap to two points with a penalty after Ireland went offside, but then Carty again found space out wide with another majestic dink over the defence.
This time the beneficiary was full-back Rob Kearney. After going four years without an international try, Kearney now has two in this last three outings. Carty nailed the conversion; Ireland led by nine and looked like they would soon be out of sight. So much for that.
The tide started turning when Japan’s team captain Michael Leitch, surprisingly left out of the starting line-up, came on after 30 minutes to a huge ovation for the injured Amanaki Mafi, who had been Japan’s best player at number eight.
The moment the comeback was truly ignited came when Rory Best, captaining Ireland for the 36th time, over-threw at a lineout, into the arms of his opposite number, Shota Horie, who tore into the Irish defence.
With the green jerseys back-pedalling, Ireland were penalised and Tamura kicked the points. More momentum came soon after when the Brave Blossoms won a scrum penalty, again to massive roars. Ireland led 12-9 at the break and were good value for it.
The second half was almost all Japan. When veteran scrum-half Tanaka replaced Nagare, he was on hand for an attacking scrum and with James Moore and Kazuki Himeno hammering at the Irish line, the ball was sent wide and Lafaele put replacement Kenki Fukuoka over in the corner.
Tamura converted, Japan were ahead and another miracle looked on the cards. Amid unrelenting pressure, the home team looked home and hosed when Ireland were penalised for offside and Tamura slotted the penalty from 35 metres.
At no stage did Ireland look like coming back. An extraordinary contest ended with Japan camped on Ireland’s line, looking to deny them the losing bonus point. They did not quite manage that, but they will not mind in the slightest.
Ireland: Rob Kearney; Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Chris Farrell, Jacob Stockdale; Jack Carty, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best (capt), Tadgh Furlong; Iain Henderson, James Ryan; Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Sean Cronin, Dave Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter, Tadhg Beirne, Rhys Ruddock, Luke McGrath, Joey Carbery, Jordan Larmour.
Japan: Ryohei Yamanaka; Kotaro Matsushima, Timothy Lafaele, Ryoto Nakamura, Will Tupou; Yu Tamura, Yutaka Nagare; Keita Inagaki, Shota Horie, Jiwon Koo; Luke Thompson, James Moore; Kazuki Himeno, Pieter Labuschagne (capt), Amanaki Lelei Mafi.
Replacements: Atsushi Sakate, Isileli Nakajima, Asaeli Ai Valu, Wimpie van der Walt, Michael Leitch, Fumiaki Tanaka, Rikiya Matsuda, Kenki Fukuoka.
Referee: Angus Gardner