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Ireland dig themselves out of jail with big second-half comeback against Japan

Tom Tierney’s side scored 24 unanswered points after the break to keep their World Cup campaign on track. Just.

Alison Miller celebrates her try.
Alison Miller celebrates her try.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ireland 24

Japan 14

Ryan Bailey reports from the Belfield Bowl, UCD

THE SCRIPT SAID it should have been a lot more straightforward than this, but Tom Tierney’s Ireland rarely make it easy for themselves and they had to show incredible strength of character to avoid a fatal blow to their World Cup hopes.

Trailing 14-0 to a dangerous and tenacious Japanese outfit at half time, Ireland managed to dig themselves out of jail, scoring 24 unanswered points, including two tries from replacement Paula Fitzpatrick, to keep the campaign on track after an almighty scare.

The expectation was that Ireland, buoyed by an opening day win over Australia, would release the shackles in their second outing and send out a firm statement of intent — but it was clear from early on that the hosts weren’t going to have it all their own way.

Japan were outstanding from the first minute and ripped Ireland apart with their expansive and highly-potent running game while also dominating the set-piece.

A penalty try and a second score from fullback Mayu Shimizu was a reflection of Japan’s superiority in the first 40 but they tired as proceedings developed and Ireland, backed by another capacity crowd in Belfield, had enough about them to conjure a huge second-half comeback.

The celebrations sparked by Fitzpatrick’s second score right at the death told their own story, Ireland somehow managing to avoid a hugely damaging defeat and will now head into Thursday’s final pool game against France knowing victory will seal a place in the semi-finals.

But Ireland will need to improve immeasurably in every regard if they are to stand any chance of progression to the last four as, on the back of two narrow wins, their World Cup aspirations look decidedly optimistic.

All three tries, just as they did against Australia, were created by the forwards and when Ireland needed it most, any thoughts of unleashing their backline were ditched for the more familiar route one approach.

Ireland players celebrate the score of their second try Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Winger Alison Miller ignited the comeback not long into the second half and Ireland sprung from there to cross twice more, through Fitzpatrick, to snatch a less than convincing victory.

The early exchanges gave a false impression as to what was to come, with Ireland’s initial zip and spark quickly undermined by a series of basic, and, at this level, inexcusable, handling errors as well as a lack of discipline at the breakdown.

Mairead Coyne, one of seven changes from the win over Australia, couldn’t have endured a more difficult day at fullback and Ireland’s set-piece, the cornerstone of this side under Tierney, was demolished by a far smaller and lighter Japanese pack.

Nora Stapleton kicked from hand with a semblance of conviction in the opening minutes, pinning Japan back inside their own 22 twice with well-placed kicks and Nicole Cronin, on debut, fizzed a couple of passes out to her halfback partner to settle any early nerves.

But that was about as good as it got from Ireland as they were forced to defend for large periods during an error-ridden first half display and the rearguard, stretched left and right, was breached twice before the break.

The breakthrough score of the game didn’t come until the 27th minute but all the warning signs had been there for Ireland as Japan, beaten 72-14 by France during the week, unveiled their running game.

Coyne was lucky to stay on the pitch after she hit Iroha Nagata dangerously high but the let-off was only a temporary reprieve for the fullback and Ireland as she fumbled two more kicks in behind, the second of which led to the game’s opening try.

From the scrum, Ireland left themselves out-numbered and exposed on this near side and although Japan spurned the initial chance with the line at their mercy, they reaped the rewards of a powerful scrum moments later to earn a penalty try under the posts.

Stunned and silenced, the Belfield Bowl did its best to lift the home side but the mistakes crept into all aspects of Ireland’s game and the groans of frustration and disbelief grew louder by the minute.

Hannah Tyrrell and Honoka Tsutsumi Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

There was worse to come, too.

Sophie Spence’s high tackle in midfield offered Japan one final attacking platform before the interval and after kicking for corner, the side ranked 14th in the world patiently waited for the door to open again.

After the Television Match Official had ruled out Japan’s initial attempt to get over the line, the referee went back for the penalty and Japan made no mistake from the resulting set-piece, creating the space for their backs out wide to send the fullback over for another seven-pointer.

Tierney had to do something — anything — to inject some life into Ireland’s abject performance and it was no surprise to see Coyne, Lindsay Peat and Cliodhna Moloney not return for the second half while Ailis Egan had already replaced Ciara O’Connor in the front row after the first try.

The hosts would have spoken about a fast start after the break but the task was only heightened when Katie Fitzhenry was sent to the bin for a high tackle, Ireland’s fourth of a hugely frustrating evening.

Yet with a player down, Ireland belatedly sprung to life and rumbled their way over to launch the comeback with 25 minutes remaining — and it all came via a familiar source.

The hosts were only ever going down one route to retrieve this game.

Japan provided sturdy resistance but Ireland’s power up front eventually told as Miller emerged from the bottom of the pile with ball in hand and Stapleton added the extras to give the home side hope.

Suddenly the complexion of the contest had changed and while Ireland had to ride out another wave of Japanese attack, they had the momentum to snuff it out through big hits from Sene Naoupu and Egan and then strike at the other end.

Paula Fitzpatrick celebrates her try with teammates Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

And it all came from Naoupu’s half break. The centre found a yard of space for the first time and Ireland had front foot ball from there, eventually finishing off a sustained period of pressure with Fitzpatrick rumbling over.

Stapleton, the sponsor’s player of the match, knocked over the conversion and then held her nerve with seven minutes remaining to dissect the posts with a penalty after more hard work from the Irish forwards.

A nervy conclusion ensued for the second time in four days at the Bowl but, once again, Ireland had the experience and composure to see the game out and keep their World Cup campaign on track, albeit just.

Fitzpatrick’s second try off the bench added gloss to the scoreline but a 10-point margin of victory flatters Ireland to the extreme.

A win is a win, and Ireland live to fight another day.

Ireland scorers:
Tries: Ali Miller, Paula Fitzpatrick [2]
Penalties: Nora Stapleton [2 from 2]
Conversions: Nora Stapleton [2 from 2]
Japan scorers:
Tries: Penalty try, Shimizu
Conversions: Shimizu [1 from 1]

IRELAND: 15. Mairead Coyne (23. Louise Galvin 40′), 14. Hannah Tyrrell, 13. Katie Fitzhenry (22. Jeamie Deacon 52′), 12. Sene Naoupu, 11. Alison Miller, 10. Nora Stapleton, 9. Nicole Cronin; 1. Lindsay Peat (17. Ruth O’Reilly 40′), 2. Cliodhna Moloney (16. Leah Lyons 40′), 3. Ciara O’Connor (18. Ailis Egan 28′), 4. Ciara Cooney, 5. Sophie Spence, 6. Ciara Griffin, 7. Ashleigh Baxter (19. Paula Fitzpatrick 43′), 8. Claire Molloy (capt).

Replacements not used: 20. Anna Caplice, 21. Larissa Muldoon.

JAPAN: 15. Mayu Shimizu, 14. Eriko Hirano, 13. Iroha Nagata, 12. Riho Kurogi, 11. Honoka Tsutsumi, 10. Minori Yamamoto, 9. Moe Tsukui; 1. Makoto Ebuchi, 2. Seina Saito, 3. Saki Minami, 4. Aoi Mimura (19. Aya Nakajima 37′) 5. Ayano Sakurai, 6. Yuki Sue, 7. Sayaka Suzuki (21. Yumeno Noda 63′) 8. Maki Takano.

Replacements not used: 17. Mizuho Kataoka, 18. Maiko Fujimoto, 20. Yui Shiozaki, , 22. Ayaka Suzuki, 23. Ai Tasaka.

Referee: Ian Tempest.

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