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Analysis: How Ireland gave up a 12-3 lead to be shocked by Japan

We take a look at the litany of Irish errors that allowed Japan’s brilliance to flourish.

A 12-3 LEAD after just 22 minutes in a crucial World Cup game is close to dream territory.

Ireland earned as much with some sharp attacking play against Japan yesterday, but collapsed from that point and fed into the hands of a brilliant performance from the Brave Blossoms.

conor-murray-dejected-after-the-game Ireland will feel their errors allowed Japan to thrive. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It’s worth underlining that there were warning signs from very early in this game and only a fortunate bounce allowed Jacob Stockdale to deny Japan a fourth-minute try from Timothy Lafaele’s clever grubber kick.

But having managed to hog possession with five lineout attacks between that let-off and their second try through Rob Kearney, Ireland had done a fine job of stifling Japanese momentum. 

However, any impression of control swiftly evaporated and to then feed Japan’s sensational performance was damning for Joe Schmidt’s game plan and Ireland’s execution.

The issues were widespread, rather than confined to one specific area of the game. While we must stress again the quality of Japan’s performance – they made life so difficult for Ireland – Schmidt will have identified many shortcomings on Ireland’s part. 

Overthrow

After initially defending well against Japan’s attempts to respond to the Kearney score, Ireland began to unravel with a 31st-minute lineout failure.

OT

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Just inside Japan’s half, this is an ideal opportunity for Ireland to apply more pressure but captain Rory Best overthrows the lineout and feeds the Brave Blossom’s deep-rooted desire to counter-attack.

We see the brilliance of captain Michael Leitch – just onto the pitch as a replacement for the injury Amanaki here, as he takes off from his involvement in the lineout [red below] just as Shota Horie carries off Best’s overthrow.

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By the second phase, Leitch has worked all the way out towards the opposite 15-metre channel, providing an overload against Ireland’s scrambling defence…

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Japan passed the ball superbly on turnover possession yesterday and this is a good example as playmakers Yu Tamura and Ryoto Nakamura shift it wide swiftly, allowing Lafaele to send Leitch surging into space, from where he offloads back inside…

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Suddenly, Ireland are back in their 22 and frantically working to recover.

Japan continue to shift Ireland around with their high-tempo recycling and passing game, leading to Conor Murray giving up a penalty as he goes off his feet while jackaling.

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Now, Ireland had some justifiable frustrations with Angus Gardner’s refereeing in this game but they also gave away some criminally obvious penalties to rack up a total of nine penalty concessions. Oftentimes, the sheer pace and width of Japan’s attack drew poor discipline from them.

With a ball-in-play time of 38 minutes and 59 seconds – not extraordinary – Ireland should have been able to cope better but they struggled to get a handle on Japan’s attacking quality.

In this specific case, to go from a prime attacking lineout position in Japan’s half to conceding three points from Tamura’s penalty was very damaging.

After Ireland had nailed their first seven lineouts of this game and yielded good reward from the set-piece, the first loss on Best’s throw was the beginning of the collapse.

Scrum concession

From the subsequent restart, Ireland earned a turnover with some good defence, providing a perfect attacking chance from a scrum just outside the Japan 22.

Having won a big scrum penalty in the first scrum of the day – leading eventually to the Kearney try – Ireland seemed intent on securing a second penalty in this instance but instead found themselves on the wrong end of another game-changing moment.

Scrum

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We can see Ireland’s intent to scrummage for a penalty here as Murray feeds, then sits off the scrum, allowing his pack to get to work.

Japan’s resistance is strong, however, as they back up their chat about scrums during the week. Ironically enough, it does appear that Japanese loosehead Keita Inagaki drives in on the angle in this case, shearing the scrum to Ireland’s left.

Inagaki

Tadhg Furlong’s sheer frustration at the decision from referee Angus Gardner is evident but Ireland will also be disappointed with how they handled this situation.

Leaving the ball in the scrum in order to milk a penalty is risky and it backfires on Ireland in this instance. 

The sheer momentum lift this scrum win gave Japan is difficult to stress enough, but their celebrations and the instant feeling of a major shift within the stadium were powerful.

 A long restart

Japan went on the attack from the subsequent lineout and secured another three points to narrow Ireland’s lead when Josh van der Flier was pinged by Gardner for not rolling away.

It was a tough one for the Ireland openside, who is pinned into the ruck by Inagaki and James Moore, who trap him and prevent him from rolling clear.

Pen

While it’s a soft penalty for Gardner to give, it is streetwise play from Japan. It’s difficult to have sympathy for Ireland, given that they and the Irish provinces have used such tactics at ruck time in the past.

Gardner, who was strangely criticised by Schmidt just two days before this Test match, rewards Japan for their attacking pressure and Tamura kicks three points to bring the score into 12-9.

Carty’s restart is a very poor one, meaning Ireland compound the concession of three points with another error.

Restart

With 39:30 on the clock, Ireland simply need to pressure Japan off the restart and get into the half-time break to regather themselves, but Carty miscues his drop-kick and the Brave Blossoms get an attacking scrum on halfway.

The Japanese attack is superb again, as they launch an inventive power play and then break through in midfield from a tip-on pass as O’Mahony bites in. 

In the end, Ireland are deeply fortunate that the otherwise sensational Horie opts to grubber kick with an overlap outside him wide on the left.

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Japan have Ireland on the ropes here and if Horie can straighten and pass, there is potentially an opportunity to score. 

He opts for the grubber instead and the bounce just beats chasing wing Lomano Lemeki to the touchline, allowing Ireland to head into half-time with a sigh of relief. 

Loose with the ball 

Coming out after half-time, the sense was that Ireland would be keen to steadfastly retain possession and grind down the Japanese momentum with the kind of intelligent tactical play and bullying physicality they have become renowned for.

Instead, we saw Ireland’s looseness playing into the Japanese desire for counter-attacking chances.

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Keith Earls fails to execute an offload attempt in the instance above. It is rare that Ireland take risks with their offloading game but this error allows Japan to once again flood onto the attack.

To be fair to Ireland, they appear to think they are playing an advantage in this case after Matsushima has knocked-on from a Japanese lineout attack, but the error still invites Japan to lift the tempo again.

Ireland attempted eight offloads in this game – higher than their usual average – and two produced errors, while another pair were ineffective. It certainly seemed that Ireland deviated from their usual strength in that sense.

Ireland defend well from the turnover in this instance and then apply pressure back on Japan with Carty’s second good tactical kick of the second half, resulting in a poor exit from Lemeki that allows Schmidt’s side to carry back towards the Japanese 22.

But when they get there, we see more uncharacteristically loose play from Ireland.

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Ireland are usually rock solid with their own possession but they conceded 15 turnovers in this game – again, more than average – with the example above among the frustrating examples.

Murray is on the ground from the previous carry as Cian Healy surges into contact before Best and James Ryan clearout. The ball is exposed at the back of the ruck and the outstanding Kazuki Himeno spots his opportunity.

Strangely, Furlong is passive in reacting to the danger, standing and watching as Himeno bursts towards the ball. The Japan back row takes the gift and 20 seconds later, fullback Kearney has to sprint back into Ireland’s half to cover a relieving kick.

22 failure

Ireland finally box-kicked for the first time in the game in the 48th minute, with Murray hanging the ball over fullback Yamanaka as Earls chased upfield.

Having kicked 14 times against Scotland, with some major success, it was strange that Murray kicked just twice against Japan and only one of those was a contestable.

Given Japan’s aerial weakness, it seemed obvious that Ireland would use their strength in this area to unsettle the Brave Blossoms. But they only kicked two contestables in this game, winning both back in big successes. 

Under Murray’s kick, Yamanaka duly dropped the ball forward, even without Earls getting off the ground, and Ireland won a powerful penalty at the ensuing scrum – replacements Dave Kilcoyne and Andrew Porter making their presence felt.

Carty kicks up the right touchline and Ireland are in prime position to squeeze Japan and potentially restore some scoreboard breathing space.

Instead, Japan produce another belief-boosting steal.

Steal

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Ireland will potentially reflect on poor calling and a poor throw here.

Lineout caller Iain Henderson walks into the lineout amidst the movement of Stander and Ryan, aiming to confuse Japan, but then stands still for two seconds as the Japanese defence get a read on him.

38-year-old Luke Thompson is a defensive threat just in front of Henderson but the Ireland lock goes up anyway. Thompson gets into the air, aided by an excellent read and lift from Leitch at the front.

Compounding the situation is an underthrow from Best, as the ball leaves his hands on a low trajectory that makes it easier for Thompson to bat it back on Japan’s side.

The pressure valve is released and Japan exit well on Ireland’s next attack too, Matsushima countering out from his own tryline after an O’Mahony grubber down the right.

Game-changing exit woes

After Tamura missed a long-range penalty – a harsh one against Ireland after Carty had been taken out in the air by Namakura but Gardner instead pinged Murray for not rolling away – Japan flooded forward on the attack once again only for Chris Farrell and Jacob Stockdale to force a knock-on inside the Ireland 22.

Schmidt’s men are generally excellent at calmly exiting their defensive territory, but their collapse continues here with another uncharacteristic mistake.

Stander picks off the base of the scrum and feeds Farrell to his right…

Stander

The inside centre, who has been effective with direct lines earlier in this game, steps back inside after receiving the pass, rather than looking to drive into the space between Japan’s centres.

As Farrell comes back inside, he collides with Stander in front of him, denying Lappies Labuschagne a chance to tackle and handing an attacking scrum to Japan.

AO

The Japanese turn that platform into seven points, and this seems as a good a time as any to underline once again the sheer quality of Japan’s performance.

Nakamura carries powerfully from the scrum, battering into Farrell and Ringrose before Japan cleverly bounce back against the grain to send Lemeki [white below] thundering into Murray and Stander on the edge of the ruck.

Lemeki

Leitch very nearly picks and carries over the tryline on the next phase, but Henderson, Furlong, and Ruddock combine to halt him.

Japan shift back to left and the powerful Himeno makes a surge as Gardner indicates an offside penalty advantage against Ireland, then we see those clinical passing skills again.

Try

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Defensively, Ireland might feel they could have folded another player around the corner earlier here, as well as blitzing up harder when Japan make their first pass, but we must appreciate the quality of the attack too.

The highly influential Nakamura rips a skip pass across the face of Matsushima to Lafaele, whose sweet hands come to the fore again with a rapid catch-pass to send replacement wing Kenki Fukuoka over for the try, converted by Tamura.

With Ireland having botched their exit, Japan punished to them to the tune of seven points.

Last chances

Ireland responded positively to Japan taking the lead at 16-12, countering off Japan’s exit until Kearney nudged a clever grubber behind the hosts, forcing Matsushima to carry into touch 10 metres from the Japanese tryline.

Again, a prime opportunity for Ireland. They strike with a back peel from the lineout, sending Stander thundering at the defence, before a series of pick and goes tightens up the Japanese defence.

On eighth phase, Ireland bring an intricacy in a bid to finally crack the resilient Japanese defence. 

Ireland look set for another one-out carry as Ryan passes to Henderson to the right of the ruck [red below].

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But Henderson instead swivels and drops the ball out the back to Murray lurking in behind [yellow below].

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Murray then screens a pass behind Sean Cronin and Ringrose to playmaker Carbery [red below] bouncing out the back of those decoy runners.

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Behind Carbery, fullback Kearney [white below] has also swept across from left to right, and with Japan wing Fukuoka biting inwards initially [green below] a brief window of opportunity opens.

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There is massive pressure on Carbery here so close to the tryline and having only recently come onto the pitch off the bench.

But if he does release this pass to Kearney, there’s an opportunity. Fukuoka has the agility to potentially recover but Kearney would back himself to get outside the Japan wing and draw in final defender Matsushima [yellow below] and give Keith Earls [red] to finish.

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However, Carbery [blue above] has already ducked back inside to carry instead and he’s swallowed up by Lemeki’s tackle.

Ireland revert to a one-out carry through Ryan on the next phase, and Himeno wins the race to the breakdown to earn a jackal turnover penalty.

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Ireland are rejected by the excellent Japan defence here, but they will feel they missed an opportunity. 

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As we can above, Murray certainly feels so, indicating to Carbery that he might have given the pass.

Final nail in the coffin

Murray himself was guilty of the next turnover, with Ireland having flooded onto the attack after Earls had knocked a contestable Carbery kick down to Kearney – again underlining how Ireland might have dominated with more of that tactic.

The Ireland scrum-half attempts to drop off an inside pass to Larmour as he arcs off the base of the ruck, but instead passes the ball forward.

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It’s a big mistake from a key player of Murray’s experience but it highlights how error-prone Ireland were as a team.

Having earned a good field position, they once again let up the pressure on Japan with their inaccuracy.

Japan’s attack from the ensuing scrum is sublime as they go wide-wide from left-to-right and back right-to-left, stretching Ireland to breaking point and dragging consecutive offside penalty concessions out of them to allow Tamura to open up the lead to 19-12 from the tee. 

By now, Ireland are in dire straits and the final nail in the coffin comes as Larmour’s pass is picked off by Fukuoka.

Again, the aggression from the Japanese defence is laudable, but Ireland will feel their own poor decision-making and execution fed into the hosts’ hands.

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Larmour opts to pass to Ringrose here [as indicated by white above] but might wonder if he could have floated a wider pass [yellow] to Earls [circled in green].

Van der Flier is actually wider again outside Earls, meaning Ireland are numbers up on the edge.

Nakamura makes life very, very difficult for Larmour by hammering up on him, putting real pressure on his passing and cutting his decision-making time down to split seconds, while Fukuoka [red above] is coming up hard on the edge too.

As Larmour releases the shorter pass to Ringrose, Fukuoka keeps coming and intercepts, only being denied a try by Earls’ impressive trackback speed. But a knock-on from Earls as he attempts to regain his feet and jackal means this was game over. 

Ireland’s review this morning will have identified many of the above failings – this is not even an exhaustive account – and it’s likely that Schmidt and his players will have a strong belief that all of it is fixable in a short space of time.

It remains to be seen if there is a dent in the squad’s belief, of course, but Schmidt will probably welcome a game so soon in the shape of Russia in Kobe on Thursday.

While he will make wholesale changes to his team and a convincing win wouldn’t really tell us much about Ireland, a bonus-point victory would leave Ireland on track for a quarter-final place.

What happens in that possible knock-out game seems to be anyone’s guess. As we have seen as recently as last year, Ireland are capable of beating anyone when they hit a peak, but they seem equally as capable of stuttering in 2019.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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