KOBE – It is a game Ireland dares not lose and one in a sense it cannot “win” when it tries to revive its Rugby World Cup campaign against Russia on Thursday.
Ireland’s hopes of being crowned world champion for the first time suffered a setback with a 19-12 defeat against Japan on Saturday.
But despite that loss, bonus-point wins over both Russia and Samoa in its final two group matches will see Ireland through to the quarterfinals after it started Pool A with a convincing 27-3 victory over old rival Scotland.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has made 11 changes in personnel after a five-day turnaround, with flyhalf Johnny Sexton returning to the side after missing the Japan loss with a thigh injury.
Sexton, who will captain Ireland for the first time in his illustrious career, reckons the Japan defeat may have been a “blessing in disguise” because it came during the pool phase rather in the knockout stages where there is no chance of recovery.
Even allowing for the changes and humid conditions at the covered Kobe Misaki Stadium that make ballhandling difficult, Ireland should still have more than enough to see off a Russian side ranked 20th in the world.
The only previous World Cup meeting between the teams saw Ireland hammer Russia 62-12 eight years ago.
But Schmidt said it was important Ireland did not get ahead of itself in the pursuit of a precious bonus point, achieved by scoring four tries.
“We can’t put anything on the scoreboard without getting the things we need to put in place,” the New Zealander said.
Meanwhile, Russia coach Lyn Jones has made nine changes to a side that conceded six tries in a 34-9 defeat to Samoa. That came just four days after Russia gave Japan problems in a 30-10 defeat against the tournament host in the opening game of the RWC.
The Welshman has six new faces in the pack, as Russia aims to take Ireland on up front. Jones, however, was under no illusions about the scale of the task confronting his side.
“We are facing probably the toughest challenge that Russian rugby has ever faced. We take on one of the best teams in the world, Ireland.
“The challenge for us is to make sure that we make life as difficult for Ireland and to score as many tries as we can,” he added.
Thursday’s match will also feature a family reunion between Russia forwards coach Mark McDermott and his nephew, Ireland wing Andrew Conway.
“They’re going to have some sort of reaction to what happened last week against Japan,” McDermott told the Irish Independent.
“It’s kind of hard to believe that Ireland found themselves in this position.”
As for his nephew Conway, he added: “Everyone knew his attacking ability, but there were question marks over his defense and his high ball ability. But he is one of the best in the business now.”