TOYOTA, AICHI PREF. – On the day Rugby World Cup organizers opted to change their policy and allow fans to bring their own lunches and dinners to games, there was plenty of food for thought for Japan coach Jamie Joseph following Sunday’s Scotland vs. Ireland game in Yokohama.
For many fans, the game between the two Celtic nations seemed to confirm what they have been talking about for some time — namely that Japan needs to target its Oct. 13 game against the Scots if it is to reach the knockout stages.
But that would quite frankly be foolhardy, and Joseph knows it.
The Brave Blossoms’ mantra has always been to take things a game at a time, and that means everything needs to be focused on Saturday’s encounter against Ireland in Shizuoka.
The Irish showed yesterday they have a powerful athletic pack, halfbacks who can control a game and backs who can finish.
Collectively they were clinical and dominated every aspect of the game, with their defense particularly impressive.
The Scots meanwhile, looked rudderless and beatable.
So, some would say, surely that means Japan should perhaps rest some key players with an eye to that final pool game, rather than risk them against a side that has all but booked its place in the quarterfinals.
Interestingly, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt summed up what Joseph has also been saying.
“We’ve just got to go step by step,” Schmidt said. “We won’t be talking too much about (a potential quarterfinal match-up with) South Africa. If we can maybe get past Japan, we’ve got Russia, Samoa, and hopefully at that stage we can potentially manage players.”
And that is from a coach who has far more depth to his squad than Joseph.
Japan may have won their opening game with a bonus point, but there were still a number of things that did not click against Russia, Pool A’s weakest team.
With Samoa — a side that any team in the group ignores at their peril — up before the Scotland game, the Brave Blossoms need as much time as they can get to work on both their attack and their defensive game against the high ball.
“I presume (Ireland will) do to us pretty much the same thing, teams are kicking the ball to nullify our strength,” said Japan captain Michael Leitch.
“What we make out of the balls given to us will be the key. (Ireland) are very strong, a team that doesn’t make lots of mistakes. There are many players to watch out for. The things we have to be most careful with are scrums, mauls and lineouts and we need to carry them out with high accuracy or risk not getting the rhythm of the game.”
The doubters, however, will no doubt continue to argue it is a lost cause, given the way Ireland performed.
But with opening game nerves hopefully out of the way, the game gives Japan a chance to really test itself against one of the best teams in the world.
If things do go well, that will see them going into their next game against Samoa full of confidence.
“Watching Japan — that first half they played against England, and they went through the Pacific Nations Cup unbeaten — they are a dangerous team. If they get some tempo, we might be on the back foot,” was Schmidt’s assessment.
Japan has the advantage of going into the game at Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa with two more days of rest than the Irish. And with Kenki Fukuoka back running at full pace, Joseph is likely to have a full complement to choose from.
Ireland, meanwhile, has a couple of injury concerns following their bruising clash with their Six Nations rival.
“On Tuesday, we may just do a light session, because it was pretty tough out there,” said Schmidt, whose two real concerns are the head knocks suffered by Peter O’Mahony and Bundee Aki.
So back to Joseph and his thoughts.
What will he do in the back row with Amanaki Lelei Mafi back to full fitness? If Fukuoka is fit, how does he manage his wings? And does he keep faith with the out of sorts Yu Tamura and William Tupou at flyhalf and fullback?
New Zealander Schmidt is awaiting his compatriot Joseph’s choices with baited breath.
“I think the Japanese will play very fast. They have great skills and players who can spread the ball very quickly (and) up front you’ve got some really dynamic guys.”
“I’m not sure how Jamie will manage those, but we’ll be watching with interest on Thursday when he names his team.”
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