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What will Ireland have picked out from Japan's only game since July?

Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown’s side are incisive and intelligent in attack.

Japan's intelligent attack will pose problems for Ireland again.
Japan's intelligent attack will pose problems for Ireland again.

JAPAN HAVE ONLY played three international games in the two years since their exploits at the 2019 World Cup and yet, they have managed to maintain much of the momentum they built up in such thrilling fashion at that home tournament.

Head coach Jamie Joseph benefits from extensive hands-on time with his players, a real contrast to most Test rugby coaches who would love to have longer stints in camp with their squads.

Indeed, the Brave Blossoms have been together as a group for around two months coming into Saturday’s clash with Ireland, who came together under Andy Farrell nine days ago.

Japan’s only game since playing Ireland in Dublin back in July came two weekends ago as Australia visited Oita. The Wallabies led by just four points until a 79th-minute maul try saw them win 32-23.

This came after Dave Rennie’s men had already been through seven games of Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship action.

michael-leitch-celebrates-scoring-a-try-from-a-maul Japan lost 39-31 in Dublin in July. Source: ©INPHO

Despite Japan’s players not having played a single game since the Ireland fixture in July, they pushed the Wallabies hard, underlining their ability to look well-drilled even without regular rugby.

Their performance also served as a reminder of what is coming for Farrell’s Ireland this weekend, both in terms of strengths and also possible opportunities.

Japan’s assistant coach Tony Brown has shown his attacking genius for a long time now and resisted the temptation to become part of the All Blacks’ set-up in order to continue working with Joseph and Japan into the 2023 World Cup.

Japan’s attack is fluid, high-tempo, and varied in phase play, as illustrated in this instance against the Wallabies last weekend. While they’re not in their familiar 1-3-2-2 shape here, we see plenty of their traits.

Firstly, we note the presence of playmakers on either side of the ruck in out-half Rikiya Matsuda and inside centre Ryoto Nakamura. 

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Japan operate with a genuine dual-playmaker model with either Matsuda or the highly-experienced Yu Tamura at out-half and the creative, intelligent Nakamura at 12, allowing them to play with great width and variety thanks to the additional decision-making and distribution skills.

In this instance, Japan play to the left as scrum-half Yutaka Nagare finds tighthead prop Jiwon Koo in the middle of a three-man pod of forwards.

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Koo has a tip-on pass option in second row Jack Cornelsen [white arrow above] but pulls his pass out the back to Matsuda [highlighted in red].

On the next wave of the attack, flanker Lappie Labuschagne [yellow arrow below] is a running threat short off Matsuda and does a great job of sitting down Nic White in the Wallabies’ defensive line.

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Again, Japan play out the back to centre Timothy Lafaele [highlighted in blue above] and he straightens before feeding the ball on to powerful number eight Kazuki Himeno.

Japan make a gain of around 10 metres with this fluid passage of interplay between forwards and backs.

Importantly, both Cornelsen and Labuschagne were viable options for the attack here, meaning Australia had multiple threats to worry about in defence. 

A couple of phases later, we see another of the Japanese threats – their attacking kicking game.

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In this instance, Japan play out the back of two forwards to Matsuda, who has Nakamura showing for a short pass on his right shoulder, but instead cross-kicks to find right wing Lomano Lemeki, who beats Tom Wright in a one-on-one.

While Japan are very comfortable in keeping the ball in hand for long passages of attack as they attempt to fatigue the defence with high ball-in-play time, they are always scanning for and communicating opportunities for their attacking kicks.

Tamura and co. did real damage against Ireland with their kicking game back in July.

As well as bringing huge tempo and variety in their phase attack – snapping into shape impressively quickly after winning turnovers of possession – Japan are a major threat from structured set-piece attack, where Brown’s creativity shines through.

Below, we get a simple example as Japan run an ’11′ play off a lineout – one phase infield and then immediately bouncing back to their left.

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Japan play off the top of a five-man lineout, with Nakamura used to link the ball on to midfield carrier Himeno, who has Labuschagne on his shoulder but carries himself.

Loosehead prop Craig Millar comes from the tail of the lineout to support the carry, but Labuschagne needs to make an excellent clearout to prevent Allan Alaalatoa from earning a turnover. 

As Himeno is carrying, we can see that out-half Tamura and blindside wing Siosaia Fifita [red below] are swinging in behind to Japan’s right as if to set up on that side for the second phase of the attack.

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Meanwhile, lock James Moore works very hard after lifting Cornelsen at the lineout to fold all the way around the corner, offering a carrying option on that side on second phase – ensuring Australia’s defence also needs to fold a couple of bodies around the corner.

Instead, Japan bounce back to their left as centre Lafaele acts as the scrum-half, allowing Nagare to offset himself from the breakdown, as we can see below.

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With Millar involved in the breakdown and Moore already around the corner, the three remaining forwards [highlighted in gold above] coming from the lineout run off Nagare as Tamura swings back behind them.

The forwards are a decoy in this instance but Wallabies back row Pete Samu is lured in by the particularly threatening dart of Japan back row Yoshitaka Tokunaga.

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It leaves Japan with plenty of space out on the left as Nagare pulls his pass back to Tamura, who worries edge defender White before passing to Japan hooker Atsushi Sakate, who has barely moved since his lineout throw.

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Two clever, intricate phases of structured attack get Japan in behind the Wallabies’ defence and give them a 20-metre gain.

Japan’s attack is now consistently a major threat to opposition defences and Ireland will need to be alert, hard-working, and highly aggressive to shut them down.

Attempting to stop them at source is essential. If Japan win clean lineout ball, in particular, they can cut teams apart. The Wallabies were aggressive in lineout defence last weekend – forcing steals or scrappy delivery at four of their Japan’s 15 lineouts – and Ireland will almost certainly look to stymie them in that area too.

The Australians also had some big wins at maul time, scoring the aforementioned game-sealing try from 10 metres out, with Japan’s maul defence damagingly lethargic in that instance.

Maul

We get a sense of it above as Samu comes to ground from his lineout win and the Wallabies snap into mauling shape.

The instant overload is obvious as Japan’s forwards fail to react swiftly here, allowing the Wallabies to generate early forward momentum that is never stopped. Ireland forwards coach Paul O’Connell will hope for similar opportunities.

Meanwhile, O’Connell will be keen to stifle any Japanese mauling efforts in attack, with the Wallabies winning two crucial turnovers in that department close to their own tryline after Japan threw beyond the 15-metre line.

Two scrum penalties against the Japanese front row will also have caught Ireland scrum coach John Fogarty’s eye and that will be another key battleground as the home side look for dominance.

Meanwhile, Farrell and Ireland attack coach Mike Catt will have been plotting ways to break down Japan’s defence. One of their tactics back in July was exploiting the Japanese tendency to fold early and hard around the corner – something the Wallabies also went after two weekends ago.

Fold

Above, we see three Japanese forwards folding hard after the Wallabies play a phase away from the right touchline.

But the Wallabies then bounce immediately back down the shortside where they have held a numerical advantage. They make positive gains before Wright is tackled into touch. 

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Ireland’s attack in July picked out holes closer to the ruck as they looked to exploit Japan’s defence in a similar manner, so it will be fascinating to see what Farrell and Catt have come up with on this occasion.

While Ireland are favourites for Saturday’s clash, Japan’s strengths in attack should see them ask probing questions of the hosts and the hope is for another entertaining and absorbing contest.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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