SHIZUOKA – Ireland handed Japan a harsh lesson with a 50-22 victory in the first of two test matches between the 2019 Rugby World Cup group rivals on Saturday.
Japan went into the game at Ecopa Stadium looking to beat Ireland for the first time in eight attempts and lay down a marker two years ahead of their World Cup Pool A encounter, but four first-half tries firmly established the visitors’ dominance.
Japan responded in the second half with a try from fullback Ryuji Noguchi before Ireland — missing 11 players on British and Irish Lions duty — went on to kill off any hopes of a comeback.
But tries from Kenki Fukuoka and Yutaka Nagare in the dying minutes gave the 27,381-strong crowd something to cheer about, and left Japan head coach Jamie Joseph looking for an overall improvement when the two teams meet again in Tokyo next Saturday.
“I felt that we just weren’t desperate enough,” said Joseph, whose team beat Romania 33-21 in Kumamoto last weekend. “To beat one of the best teams in the world, one that’s ranked No. 4 in the world, we have to execute well and apply our game well. And we have to be desperate to win.
“What I am proud about is that we brought on some of the younger guys and they showed their inspiration. They showed the hunger that’s required to play well, to challenge the big rugby teams.”
Japan fell apart midway through the first half when prop Heiichiro Ito was sent to the sin-bin and Ireland — which has beaten both New Zealand and England in the last eight months — began to punch holes in the Brave Blossoms’ defense at will.
“It’s very difficult to play a classic rugby team with 14 men,” said Joseph, who lost center Timothy Lafaele to injury shortly before kickoff. “We conceded 21 points in those 10 minutes, which obviously put the game out of reach for us.”
An early Japan offside allowed Paddy Jackson to kick Ireland into the lead before the visitors scored the first try of the afternoon in the 12th minute. Ireland bulldozed through Japan’s scrum before Jack Conan went charging down the left wing and gave Keith Earls a simple pass to canter over the line.
Yu Tamura pulled a penalty back for Japan but Ireland extended its lead with a second try in the 25th minute. Quinn Roux jumped highest to win a lineout and feed the ball to Dan Leavy, who barged his way over the line before Jackson added the conversion.
Ito’s stint in the sin-bin put Japan at a further disadvantage, and Ireland ruthlessly exploited the gaps when Earls set up Leavy for his second try of the game in the 29th minute.
“I think the conditions were slightly less hot than we thought they were going to be, because we were here yesterday for the captain’s run and it was searingly hot,” said Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. “It made for a really good game and good conditions.”
Conan scored another try three minutes later, and Jackson’s metronomic boot kept the score ticking upward as the men in green went into halftime with a 31-3 lead.
“I think on the back of a strong scrum we managed to control a lot of the first half, but you saw how dangerous the Japanese team were when they got some space on the ball,” said Schmidt. “They were super in the last quarter of the game.”
Conan added another try six minutes after the interval but Japan regrouped and looked to have scored through Uwe Helu in the 54th minute, only for the try to be ruled out for obstruction.
But the home side persevered and got its reward six minutes later when Noguchi burst through to score and substitute Rikiya Matsuda kicked the conversion.
“We changed the halfbacks and tried to raise the tempo and we got a try, but I think if we had managed to score one sooner we would have had more of a chance,” said Matsuda. “I don’t know how much, but I think we could have played some good rugby.”
Subsequent tries from Garry Ringrose and Earls stopped Japan’s fightback in its tracks, but Fukuoka and Nagare made sure the home side had the last word when they crossed the line in the final minutes.
“We lost the game but I think we managed to achieve something,” said Nagare, who came on in the 52rd minute. “When I came on the pitch, all my teammates and opponents were tired but it was important to put everyone in the frame of mind to attack.
“I could feel that everyone was tired but I tried to give them energy.”
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