Ireland set to deny Japan a Brighton-type miracle ending
After the "Miracle of Brighton" nobody is expecting a sequel called the "Shock of Shizuoka."
For one thing, Ireland is taking Japan seriously in their Rugby World Cup pool match on Saturday in Shizuoka.
South Africa underestimated Japan in Brighton in the 2015 Rugby World Cup and suffered in one of sport's greatest upsets. The story was turned into a movie, a la "Miracle."
The video highlights of this one are expected to feature a lot of red-and-white-hooped jerseys in the stands and a lot of green jerseys on the field.
Even without an injured Jonathan Sexton, Ireland should extend a 7-0 record against Japan, which includes a 50-22 win in Shizuoka two years ago. That scoreline roughly met Ireland's average against Japan over the last 28 years.
The Irish opened this World Cup by rolling over Scotland 27-3 in the rain in Yokohama last weekend, confirming they are favored to top Pool A.
Japan overcame stage fright on opening night of its home tournament to put away Russia 30-10. The Japanese were so anxious to impress that flyhalf Yu Tamura says, "I thought I was going to die." They shone in the second half, and Tamura adds, "I'm looking forward to the next one more now we've been freed from pressure."
Well, not entirely. Japan's mindset has switched from favorite against Russia to underdog against Ireland, and they've put pressure on themselves by talking up their chances.
"The whole public is favoring the Ireland side, they are expected to win," scrumhalf Yutaka Nagare says. "But we are pretty confident and we truly believe we can prove them wrong.
"It's about mentally believing that, getting the detail right, and having the confidence in our training and what we've accumulated through the buildup and the tournament. We are confident we can beat anyone. Whether Ireland are the best team in the world, we've prepared well, so we're confident we can beat them."
Reserve back Lomano Lava Lemeki even went so far as to predict the result: Japan 33, Ireland 20. That's a movie-worthy scoreline. Japan has never scored 30 against Ireland, and Ireland has never scored less than 32 against Japan.
Ireland has picked the same forward pack which dominated Scotland. The changes are in the backline: British and Irish Lions backs Rob Kearney and Keith Earls have recovered from their injuries to appear in their third World Cup, and Sexton is nursing a sore quad, so the steering wheel has been given to an in-form Jack Carty, making only his second start.
Nobody in the Irish setup is concerned about Carty driving them to victory.
"He's very calm, he doesn't get ruffled easily," coach Joe Schmidt says. "He doesn't get distracted by an error he might make or distracted by people trying to put pressure on him. He stays in the zone incredibly well."
While the Irish lineup is barely any less formidable than the one that crushed Scotland, Japan has been tweaked, and captain Michael Leitch dropped into the reserves to save him for more winnable games against Samoa and Scotland. Fit-again No. 8 Amanaki Lelei Mafi is back and prop Jiwon Koo, lock Luke Thompson — the oldest player in this World Cup at 38 — and fullback Ryohei Yamanaka promoted from the reserves, and William Tupou switched to wing for the first time in his test career. The moves don't add up to a side totally serious about upending the Irish.
Also, beating Russia isn't a harbinger of a Brighton-type upset. Japan missed 19 tackles and conceded 18 turnovers, and was unreliable again under the high ball, which led to Russia scoring the opening try in the fifth minute.
The high ball has been a glaring weakness for Japan and, as Russia tried it with success, Ireland will be merciless with even better kick-chasers.
"I presume they'll do to us pretty much the same thing; teams are kicking the ball to nullify our strength," scrumhalf Fumiaka Tanaka says. "What we make out of the balls given to us will be the key."
Catching every kick and pass will be key, true. So will attitude, and the Japanese are full of bravo. But the match starts in late afternoon light and finishes in darkness, and that's where Ireland intends to send the home side without another miracle ending.
Japan: Ryohei Yamanaka, Kotaro Matsushima, Timothy Lafaele, Ryoto Nakamura, William Tupou, Yu Tamura, Yutaka Nagare; Amanaki Lelei Mafi, Pieter Labuschagne (captain), Kazuki Himeno, James Moore, Luke Thompson, Jiwon Koo, Shota Horie, Keita Inagaki. Reserves: Atsushi Sakate, Isileli Nakajima, Asaeli Ai Valu, Wimpie van der Walt, Michael Leitch, Fumiaki Tanaka, Rikiya Matsuda, Lomano Lava Lemeki.
Ireland: Rob Kearney, Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Chris Farrell, Jacob Stockdale, Jack Carty, Conor Murray; CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Peter O'Mahony, James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Furlong, Rory Best (captain), Cian Healy. Reserves: Sean Cronin, Dave Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter, Tadhg Beirne, Rhys Ruddock, Luke McGrath, Joey Carbery, Jordan Larmour.