Brent Pope: Japan show Ireland what can be achieved
Ireland got their Rugby World Cup campaign off to a pretty positive start on Saturday as they cruised past a brave but limited Canada 50-7 at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
Tries from Seán O’Brien, Iain Henderson, Jonathan Sexton, Dave Kearney, Seán Cronin, Rob Kearney and Jared Payne saw Ireland to a victory in what was, for large parts, a one-sided affair. But the opening weekend belonged to one team – Japan.
The tier-two nation pulled off one of the biggest upsets in world rugby by beating two-time world champions South Africa. It was what the game badly needed, especially in Japan where rugby supporters in Tokyo saw their team grab all the headlines for the first time in their relatively short rugby history.
This was not just a lucky win as Japan bravely decided not to use numerous chances to take a famous draw in the last few minutes, opting instead for a succession of penalties and scrums before, in the 84th minute, finally scoring an unbelievable and well-deserved try. It was deserved, for not only endeavour and sprit, but speed, talent and skill. A team that never said never and showed all the other nations in this World Cup, including Ireland, that the impossible can indeed become possible.
Earlier on in the day, it went according to script, Ireland ran up a healthy enough score against Canada, scoring seven tries and gaining the prerequisite bonus point win that could always prove crucial in the final shake-up of their group.
Irish coach Joe Schmidt then tuned in to watch France defeat Italy in what turned out to be another fairly average French performance, but more significantly for France, a short turnaround period before they play again and already a key player down, with Yoann Huget ruled out thanks to a knee injury.
It was an efficient enough performance from Ireland without setting the world on fire.
We saw a lot more invention from the Irish backline, especially the Leinster wraparound, which was prominent throughout, perhaps too much so and slightly too predictable.
Ireland started slowly enough in both halves, but used their maul to great effect in creating a number of their tries (something that won’t come so easily against the bigger nations). Canada were brave defensively, but after a while a team mainly made up of amateurs and a few professionals gave Ireland too much space and latitude at the breakdown.
Their backline always stood far too shallow in defence, and just allowed excellent Irish out-half Jonny Sexton to pick off huge amounts of territory at will.
On a positive note, second row Henderson looks a star in the making at this tournament, and turned in another huge performance of athleticism and power. The big Ulster second row man was everywhere, taking up the ball, off-loading in the tackle and always getting his six-foot six-inch frame well over the gain line, ably supported by his team-mate and captain Paul O’Connell, who despite his age still looks remarkably fresh.
Sexton was the master puppeteer at 10 and deserved his man of the match award with a performance that oozed class. Sexton not only scored a good individual try, but his pinpoint tactical kicking allowed Ireland’s outside backs plenty of space and time on the ball.
Ireland’s set-peice was again strong as you would expect, and their ball presentation in the ruck was far better than it had been against England. However, all in all, it was a hard match to judge. Canada always had a finger in the dyke, and at times it was hard to say whether the Irish team was that good or the opposition that bad.
Canada did make things difficult for Ireland for patches, especially for about 25 minutes in the second half when Ireland struggled to get the ball back, and the Irish were perhaps flattered by a couple of end-to-end scores when Canada coughed up the ball in attack.
Schmidt will need a sterner test to see what his best team is, but at least a nervous enough Cian Healy came through the match unscathed.
You could see that Healy was worried when he scrummed down for the first time in months, but after that initial hit, Healy’s confidence grew and grew, and if he can now match that confidence with some more puff time on the pitch then he will be raring to go in a couple of weeks.
Ian Madigan once again showed what an underrated player he is when he came on, attacking the gain line well with ball in hand, while inside centre Luke Fitzgerald was frisky enough and could eventually be Schmidt’s answer to the outside centre position. Incumbent Payne is a fine, experienced player and ran some excellent lines on Saturday, especially for his well taken try, but you somehow feel that he is a full-back converted to a centre. You also feel that Payne’s running style is long striding rather than the dynamic short bursts of speed that is needed for the 13 position, and needed to beat opposition defenders on the outside.
The jury is still out on whether Payne will hold the position for the crucial matches later in the pool.
Given all the other performances of the so-called contenders, Schmidt will be pleased to be up and running and can move on a bit from the recent losses against Wales and England.
Ireland were never in real danger and did what was required, gaining a bonus point win with no injuries to their key playmakers and the return of one of the best props in the world.