Preview: Japan v Ireland
WORLD CUP POOL MATCH: Ireland goes into this weekend’s clash with hosts Japan without talismanic playmaker Johnny Sexton.
However, they will still expect to overpower the Brave Blossoms and preserve their winning record.
Joe Schmidt’s side, who came into the tournament as the world’s top-ranked team, crushed Scotland 27-3 with a clinical performance in their Pool A opener last weekend.
Japan thrashed Russia 30-10 in last Friday’s World Cup curtain-raiser, sparked by a hat-trick from Kotaro Matsushima, one of several lightning-fast Japanese wings head coach Jamie Joseph calls his fleet of “Ferraris”.
The Brave Blossoms have one way of playing – fast – and will look to shift the ball wide to Matsushima and William Tupou as quickly as possible in Shizuoka on Saturday.
Ireland though is banking on their rush defence in midfield to smash those supply lines, just as they did against Scotland when Chris Farrell, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose ran riot.
Expect Ireland to swarm over all Japan at the breakdown, where pint-sized scrum-half Yutaka Nagare will see way more of Josh Van Der Flier than he would probably wish.
With Sexton out, Jack Carty takes over at fly-half in only his second Test start, but Schmidt insisted he was more than up to the task.
“He came on and played really well against Scotland,” said the Kiwi-born coach, who resisted the temptation to make wholesale changes and stuck with 11 of the side who proved too strong for their Celtic rivals.
“He cleared our lines really well and the distance of his angled kicks was spot on. Hopefully, it will be a cohesive performance from us, because it will have to be.”
Element of surprise
Japan broke into the world’s top 10 under Joseph’s predecessor Eddie Jones, and have become almost a permanent fixture there under former All Black Joseph.
But they no longer carry the element of surprise following their heroics at the last World Cup four years ago, when they produced the biggest upset in the tournament’s history by stunning South Africa 34-32 in their opening game on England’s south coast.
The Japanese, then coached by Jones, went on to record two further victories, although they narrowly failed to reach the quarterfinals – the target Joseph has set them this time around.
Joseph has sprung a surprise by relegating his marauding captain Michael Leitch to the bench for Saturday’s game, meaning Pieter Labuschagne leads Japan for the first time.
Ireland, who themselves have never won a World Cup knockout game, is likely to prove too big a hurdle.
But a defiant Labuschagne promised Japan would not wilt under the pressure of being the tournament hosts.
“It brings the best out of you,” said the Pretoria-born flank.
“The whole team embraces it – it just makes you feel alive.”
Players to watch
For Japan: You will start with new captain Pieter Labuschagne, with regular skipper Michael Leitch on the bench. Prop Koo Ji-won, lock Luke Thompson and fullback Ryohei Yamanaka make their first starts after coming off the bench in the victory against Russia.
For Ireland: In the absence of Jonathan Sexton, who is being wrapped in cotton wool, Jack Carty has to pull the strings from flyhalf. Up front you will look to bruisers like Christiaan Stander, Josh Van der Flier, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Furlong and veteran skipper Rory Best to lay the platform.
Head to head
There will be some intriguing battles, but we are keen on what is likely to a brutal confrontation between Amanaki Lelei Mafi (Japan) and Christiaan Stander (Ireland). The scrums will be another key contest – Koo Ji-won, Shota Horie and Keita Inagaki (Japan) versus Tadhg Furlong, Rory Best and Cian Healy (Ireland).
Prediction: Japan will be willing and may even keep it close for a while, perhaps up till half-time. However, Ireland should race clear in the second half and win by at least 20 points.
Japan: 15 Ryohei Yamanaka, 14 Kotaro Matsushima, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Ryoto Nakamura, 11 William Tupou, 10 Yu Tamura, 9 Yutaka Nagare 8 Amanaki Lelei Mafi, 7 Pieter Labuschagne (captain), 6 Kazuki Himeno, 5 James Moore, 4 Luke Thompson, 3 Koo Ji-won, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Keita Inagaki.
Replacements: 16 Atsushi Sakate, 17 Isileli Nakajima, 18 Asaeli Ai Valu, 19 Wimpie van der Walt, 20 Michael Leitch, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Rikiya Matsuda, 23 Lomano Lava Lemeki.
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Chris Farrell, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Jack Carty, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Christiaan Stander, 7 Josh Van der Flier, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (captain), 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 David Kilcoyne, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Tadgh Beirne, 20 Rhys Ruddock, 21 Luke McGrath, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Jordan Larmour.
Date: Saturday, September 28
Venue: Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa, Shizuoka Prefecture
Kick-off: 16.15 (07.15 GMT; 08.15 UK & Ireland time)
Expected weather: Intervals of clouds and sunshine. High of 28°C and low of 22°C
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Jérôme Garcès (France), Matthew Carley (England)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)