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Analysis: Japan's skillful 1-3-2-2 attack central to shock win over Ireland

The skill level and structure of the hosts’ attack has instilled a confidence in their players, writes analyst Eoin Toolan.

Japan's players celebrate at the full-time whistle.
Japan's players celebrate at the full-time whistle.
Image: Jayne Russell/INPHO

JAPAN CAUSED A major upset for the second time at a Rugby World Cup on Saturday night with a historic first-ever win over Ireland.

Whilst the win itself created a surge of excitement both in Ecopa Stadium and around the world, it was the manner of the Cherry Blossom’s performance that has drawn so much admiration.

Victory was predicated by an attack based on skill, speed, width and a freedom of expression that demanded Ireland’s defence stretch, chase and fatally hover on the advantage line rather than blitz through it.

The beauty of Japan’s attacking framework, cleverly designed by Tony Brown, is its simplicity.

A structure borne from his native New Zealand, with subtle variations, the 1-3-2-2 attack shape (explained below) provides an environment for Japan’s forwards to operate in an efficient north-south direction and facilitates great width in Japan’s play, as well as providing opposition defences with a multitude of threats.

Whilst the attacking formation is neither unique nor difficult to engineer, it is the high level of competency and sophistication in the Japanese players catch-pass, footwork (pre and post-contact), running lines, offloading, work on the ground and kicking skills that reflects advanced and innovative coaching practices from Brown and the rest of Japan’s coaching team.  

1-3-2-2 explained

The 1-3-2-2 attack structure is essentially the groupings of forwards across the pitch. 

The rules of the set-up as are as follows: 

One back row player holds width in a 15-metre channel, the tight five forwards (numbers 1 to 5) operate between the two 15-metre channels and split into two groupings – a pod of three and pod of two – whilst the two remaining back rows set up in the opposite 15-metre to the other back row.

There is no left or right bias as to what side the back row configuration is set up, it is merely dictated by where and how possession originated. 

A group of football players on a field    Description automatically generated

The above graphic is a good example of the formation.

Michael Leitch is the one back row set up in the near 15-metre channel.

Props Jiwon Koo and Keita Inagaki have combined with Luke Thompson to make up the first pod of three. The next pod of two are the remaining tight forwards, hooker Shota Horie and James Moore.

Finally, Kazuki Himeno and Pieter Labuschagne make up the remaining two back-row positions in the far 15-metre.

Instantly, it demonstrates the width this provides Japan’s attack. 

The players circled in yellow, the available backs for the next phase, play a crucial role in the framework and how they interact with their forwards. The 10 and 12, in this case the two players with their arms outstretched, Yu Tamura and Ryoto Nakamura, are charged with directing the pod of three and two in the middle of the pitch.

Whilst one will micro communicate to the pod of three from the first receiver position, the second receiver organises the group of two. Between them, they ensure the pods are aligned to whatever call is delivered.

The third back, circled behind Nakamura, is fullback Ryohei Yamanaka and he is afforded more freedom within the structure to rove around the field and sniff out potential opportunities.

At the top of the shot above, circled in yellow is left wing Lomano Lemeki who is responsible for pulling width to the far touchline and linking up with the two back rows. In this instance, the remaining backs who are in the ruck are outside centre Timothy Lafaele and right wing Kotaro Matsushima.

Once the ball is cleared by scrumhalf Yutaka Nagare, they must reload quickly along with Leitch and give Japan an attacking option back on the short side.

Let’s take a look at what Japan end up running from this exact formation. 

1

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Japan demonstrate some really subtle skills and variation to their shape in this clip.

While it seems to be a basic carry from Koo off nine in the initial phase, it is the prop's footwork to go to the outside that impresses. Whilst potentially lateral in contact, he engages CJ Stander into the tackle which then causes Conor Murray to narrow in as he must be ready for any potential tip-on pass to Thompson.

It may only seem like a small detail but the implications of narrowing up Ireland’s defence are telling moments later. Japan have multiple variations in their shape when playing to the two forwards in the middle of the field which makes them very difficult to analyse.

In this instance, Nakamura steps up to first receiver rather than staying in behind the pod and Tamura starts to swing out the back of the pod which now gives the defence a different picture to try and anticipate.

Again, whilst not a complex set-up, it is now the individual skills operating within the framework which cause the linebreak. As Moore receives the ball, he immediately bounces out to engage Chris Farrell, Ireland’s second-last defender in the line.

Keith Earls, who is outside of Farrell, has had to maintain his width due to the three Japan attackers occupying the 15-metre channel and would have been counting on his Munster team-mate to be his inside defender next phase.

But once Moore uses his footwork to step out, then Farrell must engage the ball carrier which creates a seam between the Irish centre and Earls.

Clearly, it’s a shape that Japan had worked on as Labuschagne, who is one of the two back rows holding width, reacts to his lock's footwork and hits a perfect line through the gap. This is an excellent illustration of the Japanese players executing the game plan with a high degree of skill aided by a smart attacking structure. 

Below, we see a very similar attacking position from Japan earlier in the half.

 A stadium full of people flying kites in a field    Description automatically generated

The structure of their attack remains consistent.

One back row is in the near 15, their tight five split into a pod of three and a pod of two in between the 15-metre lines, and two back rows are in the far 15.

Take a look at what Japan elect to do this time in the clip below.

2

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This is an excellent example of Japan’s attack exposing a hint of narrowness in Ireland’s defensive structure.

Noticing Ireland have nine defenders trapped inside the first pod of his forwards, Tamura elects to bypass his group of three and calls for the ball directly from the scrum-half.

Nakamura instantly becomes animated out the back of his two forwards while instructing them to run short lines off Tamura. Whilst this is a very common play, it is the skillset of the Japan out-half that is the catalyst to the linebreak and is another indication of the high level of skill operating within the framework.

The moment Tamura receives the ball behind his forwards, he immediately looks up at Ireland’s defensive line and recognises a disconnection between Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy.

Whilst the pre-call may indeed have been for him to pass out the back to his inside centre, the recognition and then the pass execution to play the front-door option and put Koo through a gap that opens up like the red sea is exceptional.

The second key point is how Japan’s 1-3-2-2 formation has provided the options of going through or around Ireland. In the instance above, perhaps the width in their attack spooked Healy from employing Ireland’s usual aggressive linespeed and that hesitation caused the disconnect.

Below is another illustration of the 1-3-2-2 formation, this time against Russia in the opening game of the World Cup. 

A group of people on a field    Description automatically generated

In this example, take a look at another different shape pattern.

This is the third clip and all have had different variations.

3

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Russia have reasonably good spacing in their defensive line so the option to go out the back of the first pod of forwards is probably not on. Regardless, Tamura is still loaded in behind the forwards to provide some visual pressure and make the carry easier.

Again, it is the individual skill that is significant here. Watch above how Horie steps out as he receives possession to try and engage Russia’s lock (with the headgear) and whilst he does not quite get to him, his catch-pass skills are good enough to tip to Moore, who beats him on the outside.

On the second phase of this passage, which we see below, Japan play a different variation.

4

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This variation sees Nakamura splitting the two forwards, taking it to the line with the option to play inside or out.

He chooses to play prop Asaeli Ai Valu on his outside, who then attacks the inside shoulder of his defender.

Second actions

Another area Japan clearly work on is their ball carrier’s fight through contact and second actions when they hit the ground.

Below, we see an example of something that is very common in Japan's game, with Himeno releasing after being tackled, getting back to his feet, and carrying again. 

5

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Ireland were clearly alert to Japan’s tactic in this area.

If the ruck has formed, then the ball carrier cannot get back up and play the ball and Angus Gardner was on hand to penalise Japan on Saturday, as we see below.

7

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Bravery in the endgame

Below is one last image of Japan’s attack formation, this after a left-hand-side scrum launch inside their own half.

Picture 1

Take a look at the clip below.

On first phase from the scrum, Japan attack wide to their right...

8

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Before moving the ball to the opposite edge on second phase with five passes...

9

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Watching in the stadium live, I couldn’t help but be impressed by both Japan’s bravery and game awareness in this play.

Holding a one-score lead against one of the best teams in the world, at a home World Cup with only 10 minutes to go is a high-pressure scenario. Ireland’s backline had been severely compromised by injuries to both Farrell and Rob Kearney, which meant Jordan Larmour and Luke McGrath are forced to play out of position at outside centre and left wing respectively. Japan were well aware of those facts.

A left-hand-side scrum just outside your 22-metre line is an ideal attacking platform and Japan did not turn down the opportunity to launch against an under-powered defence.

Again, it was another example of their catch-pass and offloading ability to dent Ireland’s defensive line down the right touchline.

Almost instantly from the linebreak Japan find their shape as if they had practiced this scenario a thousand times. Many teams would be hesitant to play to width on this second phase, having burned three backs in the initial breakdown, but the Japanese players had no such concern.

This time the pod of three set up outside Japan’s out-half who plays straight out the back of them to Nakamura.

Horie hasn’t found the time to connect with Labuschagne in the pod of two but Nakamura still finds him with a long pass and then the hooker’s catch-pass is good enough to get to the edge where the inspirational Leitch, who has stuck to the attacking system as the one back row in the far 15, makes 10 metres down the left edge. 

I have no doubt many other teams would have done the easy thing and kicked from that initial scrum set-up, but the skill level and structure of Japan’s attack has instilled a confidence in their players to execute what they see regardless of the scenario. 

The sophistication of this attack is not reflective of a Tier 2 nation. Ireland would have been well prepared for it but Japan's level of execution was exceptional as they delivered on a game plan that was over two years in the making.

Eoin Toolan joins Murray Kinsella in Japan to review Ireland's shock defeat to the hosts at the Rugby World Cup.


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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About the author:

Eoin Toolan  / Professional rugby coach and performance analyst

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