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Ireland’s defeat of Japan doesn’t paint the whole picture

by Rich Freeman

To borrow a phrase from those that usually watch the boys in silky shorts run around after a round ball — “It’s a funny old game.”

Having watched 80 minutes of rugby between Ireland and Japan at Osaka’s Nagai Stadium on Sunday, my first impression was to think, “What the hell am I going to write?”

And it seems I was not alone.

At halftime one of the Irish journalists covering the game turned around and said, “Hopefully the rugby will start in the second half.”

My response, an hour later, was, “Hopefully the rugby will start next week,” when the two teams play each other at Tokyo’s Chichibunomiya.

Sunday’s game was quite simply one of those matches where you are left feeling short-changed.

And it had all started so well.

With the Irish leading 3-0 after just three minutes, their fly-half and captain David Humphreys put in a wonderful 60-meter break from inside his own 22, before Daisuke Ohata countered with a trademark break of his own back into Irish territory.

Unfortunately that was really it as far as the compilers of “Moments of Great Rugby” were concerned.

True, Ireland’s second try owed a lot to great deal to a good outside break and clever inside pass from Gavin Duffy; the fourth and final try showed the Irish backs and forwards interacting well and keeping the ball alive in the tackle for prop Simon Best to touchdown; and there was one humdinger of a tackle by Reuben Parkinson on Tommy Bowe.

But at the end of the day, that was really it.

Which makes writing this column all the more difficult.

The game seemed to be an exercise in the paradoxical.

Bearing in mind that this result comes on the back of some truly awful hidings for second-tier nations at the hands of the established rugby countries, there are some who may think Japan did really well.

And they did to a certain extent.

But the fact was this was — with all due to respect to the senior members of the squad who missed out on a Lions spot — an Irish 2nd XV.

The scoreboard will say there was 32 points between the two teams, but it will not say the lion’s share of the game was played in the Irish half.

With the likes of Fiji, Samoa, Canada and Uruguay allowing cricket-like scores to be racked up against them over the weekend, the initial view was Japan didn’t do that badly.

But it could have been so much better.

Former Ireland fly-half Tony Ward said at halftime that the biggest problem for the Japanese was their inability to control the set piece, particularly when they got into scoring position.

With their line-out ball being stolen by Leo Cullen and their scrum under all sorts of pressure, it was amazing that the Brave Blossoms were able to head the Irish in the territory stakes.

However, as any coach or player knows, if you don’t have good quality ball you can’t win the game.

And when Japan did get the ball it was often wasted.

Head coach Mitsutake Hagimoto said after the game that he is building toward the 2007 Rugby World Cup and that he hopes by 2011 Japan will be a Top 8 nation.

Yet he continues to pick players that have either quite clearly passed their sell-by-dates, or are simply not experienced enough to play at the highest level.

Peter Stringer, who took over as captain when Humphreys left the field with a facial injury, said that he was most impressed with the Japanese back-row, back three and No. 13.

As well he might, as they all played well.

But as any coach will tell you, the key to a team is the link between 8, 9, 10 and 12.

And on Sunday, Japan’s 9, 10 and 12 quite simply didn’t cut the mustard.

Scrum-half Wataru Murata and center Yukio Motoki have both served their country well but they are both at the age where they should be doing a Martin Johnson and retiring gracefully.

Hosei University student Kyohei Morita, on the other hand, is still starting out, but is being held back by Japan’s antiquated system that ensures he only plays university rugby when not representing the national team.

Time and time again the Japanese attack was, to put it bluntly, led by someone with tunnel vision.

Morita showed in his debut last year that he is a talented football player, but playing in the big time is different.

Sunday’s opponents were all professionals and one reason Japan failed to score a try was that its attacking patterns were either far too predictable, or ended up with Morita once again trying to put a kick in behind the Irish defense.

The rumors circulating around Nagai Stadium on Sunday were that Andy Miller has finally inked the deal that will see him return to Japan. While obviously not a candidate for the 2011 RWC — the 2007 may even be a bit too far off for the Te Puke man — Hagimoto needs him in the squad to help nurture the skills and broaden the vision of players such as Morita, Shota Goto and Ayumu Goromaru.

Next Sunday’s game will no doubt see the Irish players eager to finish their long season off in style, but Japan captain Takuro Miuchi is hopeful that the Brave Blossoms can have one last hurrah.

“We have to win at any cost,” he said.

If Hagimoto had another 14 players who played with as much passion and who had the same rugby brain as the Japan No. 8, then one could be hopeful.

But the current bunch leave you with the feeling that they are either too old or too wet behind the ears to really mix it with the big boys.