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Dublin: 4°C Wednesday 3 March 2021
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Another dismal day for Ireland at the World Cup as Schmidt's side crumble

The Ireland head coach was most frustrated by his side’s inability to push on from a 12-3 lead.

THE WARNING SIGNS were there from early on.

Amanaki Mafi turned over Irish possession inside the Japan 22 and in the blink of an eye, Timothy Lafaele was grubber-kicking through at the other end of the pitch, almost teeing up Kotaro Matsushima for an early try. 

The home crowd rose to a deafening pitch – a familiar sound by the end – in response as Jacob Stockdale just managed to dot down to keep the wolves at bay for the time being.

rory-best-with-johnny-sexton-after-the-game Johnny Sexton with Rory Best after Ireland's defeat. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Tries through Garry Ringrose and Rob Kearney appeared to swing the momentum in Ireland’s favour but those two scores proved merely to be a respite from the onslaught.

It took Japan until the 59th minute to finally push in front but any hopes that Ireland could rally for a late rescue mission were short-lived. Ecopa Stadium was rocking by this point and Japan very nearly denied Ireland a losing bonus point as they ran out 19-12 winners.

As the post-match fireworks exploded in the Shizuoka sky, Ireland were back in their changing room dealing with major regrets.

Their game plan appeared to play into Japan’s hands, handing them turnover opportunities from loose offloads and allowing them an almost 50% share of the territory.

The apparent lack of composure from Ireland leaked into the lineout – which had started strongly – coming up short on key occasions, while the scrum gave up a momentum-lifting penalty to Japan.

All the big plays appeared to come from Japan, as Ireland’s leaders failed to grab this game by the scruff of the neck and apply some of the pressure tactics that have made them a success in the recent past.

The humidity – which was extremely noticeable down at pitch level before the game got underway – seemed to draw any remaining energy from Irish legs as they struggled to cope.

Schmidt’s key mantra when he came in as Ireland boss in 2013 was consistency. For too long, Ireland had struggled to back up big performances, often dipping in the week or weeks after. That all changed under the Kiwi’s guidance as Ireland became contenders.

But 2019 has seen Ireland somehow find that nasty habit of inconsistency again. They were excellent last weekend against Scotland but backed it up by being on the receiving end of one of the biggest shocks in Test rugby history. 

rob-kearney-dejected-after-the-game Ireland were left dejected in Shizuoka. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Japan will deservedly be showered with praise for their stunning performance, but Ireland have big questions to ask of themselves.

Speaking post-match, Schmidt defended Ireland’s tactics.

“We didn’t go out with an explicit idea of playing any differently from the way we normally play,” said Schmidt after watching his team concede 15 turnovers.

“The way we started the game is the way we play the game and I felt we got good linebreaks, got in behind them and scored two tries. We were putting pressure on and I think Rob Kearney’s try was on the back of two penalty advantages because we were putting the pressure on.

“Unfortunately, that reversed as soon as they got hold of the ball. I think we got two lineouts in the second half, we didn’t get too many platforms to play from and they kept the ball for very long periods.”

Schmidt’s biggest frustration was how Ireland failed to push on once they had secured a 12-3 lead with just 22 minutes played. Instead, they failed to score again.

“That is incredibly disappointing,” said Schmidt. “To put ourselves in a couple of positions where we felt that we were close enough and putting real pressure on and we got quite close and then didn’t actually capitalise.”

Ireland are usually the most disciplined team on the pitch but they came out on the wrong end of a 9-6 penalty count, with Schmidt hinting at some frustrations at referee Angus Gardner – who the Ireland head coach had curiously decided to criticise as recently as Thursday.

“We’ll go back and have a look at it,” said Schmidt. “I certainly understand the frustrations of some of the players and in discussing things with them based on what I saw on the monitor, it’s not too dissimilar from the last time we had this referee.

“We’ll go back through the official channels and make our comments to the refereeing body.”

keith-earls-dejected-after-the-game Keith Earls at the final whistle. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ireland appeared to lack energy as they attempted to cling on to their lead in the second half, and couldn’t respond after finally going behind – the 60% humidity seeming to feed into that lethargy.

Given the six-day turnaround from the Scotland game, many had expected Schmidt to make more than four changes – it would have been five but for Jack Conan’s injury – but he had no regrets in that sense.

“Players like CJ Stander and James Ryan, they were still delivering at the end. I think we tried to have a very easy start to the week.

“We had a light training on Tuesday and our real full training was on Thursday, so those players felt really well recovered and because we had a few changes in the backline, we wanted to keep a little bit of continuity up front and that was the decision we made.

 “I think hindsight is always an advantage but I’m not sure we would have done it too differently.”

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Schmidt congratulated Japan with his first words in the post-match press conference and underlined that their performance hadn’t surprised him.

There are always two sides to every coin in rugby and, certainly, Japan’s quality made life difficult for Ireland but the cold hard facts are that Schmidt’s side were poor in a pressure situation.

Ireland have a weak track record at World Cups and this slots into the category of disastrous results on the global stage, though many would argue it wasn’t as bad as Lens in 1999 or the 2007 tournament. 

Schmidt underlined that Ireland will still aim to top Pool A with bonus-point wins over Russia on Thursday and Samoa on 12 October, but it will be very difficult for Irish fans to find optimism after this underperformance.

joe-schmidt-with-tony-brown-and-jamie-joseph Schmidt with Japan coaches Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown before kick-off. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

While those on the outside bemoan what went wrong, Schmidt must get his players moving again quickly.

“We’re doing an open session in Kobe on Tuesday and that will be the only training we have in the lead-up to Russia, who have already proved themselves to be very physical, very combative, very competitive.

“So we’re anticipating another really tough game in five days’ time and we’re going to have to dust ourselves off and certainly perform better than we did here.”

Ireland could still top Pool A with two big wins, depending on Japan’s results. But even if they do manage that, the picture has changed for Schmidt’s squad.

The prospect of keeping some frontline players out of harm’s way in the final pool clash with Samoa has now evaporated and Ireland have to make up distance on Japan, rather than sitting out in front and being fresh leading into any possible quarter-final.

“We will have to chase a little bit now because we want to stay within a chance of topping the pool,” said Schmidt. “Certainly, we’ve got to get in the top two.”

Originally published at 17.00

About the author:

Murray Kinsella  / Reports from Ecopa Stadium

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