Thursday 5 December 2019

Irish forwards to fore - Japan's attack will be snuffed out as Farrell defence job lauded


NEXT MISSION: Robbie Henshaw (l) and Jack Carty arrive for Ireland Rugby squad training at the Yumeria Sports Grounds in Iwata, Shizuoka Prefecture in Japan yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
NEXT MISSION: Robbie Henshaw (l) and Jack Carty arrive for Ireland Rugby squad training at the Yumeria Sports Grounds in Iwata, Shizuoka Prefecture in Japan yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

As expected, Joe Schmidt made only a few changes for tomorrow's World Cup clash with Japan.

In many ways, by keeping his pack largely unchanged from the one that blitzed Scotland, he has shown the host country deserved respect. At the same time, he revealed that he knows where he has the beating of the 'brave blossoms'.

The stifling heat and humidity predicted for this Saturday, and Japan's desire and need to play this game as fast as they can, could make this a tougher match than many anticipate.

Predicted temperatures of 30 degrees will feel double that in the stadium and the humidity can be exhausting when players are not used to it. The Japanese are.

It is still hard to see how the hosts are approaching this match. We know that they are an extremely proud nation and will want to give 100 per cent in every match, but they also have to think longer term.

Their coach Jamie Joseph (a former teammate) is a smart man. When I met up with Jamie in Dublin before the last Six Nations opener against England, he was there to assess what team Japan would go after with his best side. That target now becomes Scotland.

So, as a coach do you risk your key players in a game you might not win, or do you field your strongest team when it will matter most?

I suspect Japan will start the match thinking of a major upset. If they are still within touching distance of Ireland at half-time, they will go for it.

If not, and Ireland have a points cushion, then Joseph will sensibly get some of their bigger names off the park and Ireland will be thinking much the same.

Japan have already said that they think they have seen some flaws in Ireland's defence, and that Ireland will leave space on the outsides. Scotland thought the same way and look what happened there!

Space outside is only any good it you are moving forward. Lateral space, as Scotland went after, often looks great but in reality it just allows the defenders to push out, use the touchline as another defender and cramp up the attacking side.

We are already seeing what attributes a team needs to have to win this World Cup. A good defence, good discipline, and an ability to counter attack from depth are all top of my list.

Schmidt deservedly gets the plaudits when his team perform well, but the biggest turnaround since the whitewash by England in August has been Ireland's defensive game.

Ireland's defence coach Andy Farrell has done an excellent job over the past month, and it is now Ireland's defensive game that is being heralded as one of the best in the world game.

Talking to many internationals floating around Japan this week and it was Ireland's defensive screen that most impressed them in their opening win against Scotland, and that same defensive strategy will potentially play a huge role again tomorrow.

Against England earlier in the warm-up series, Ireland were often guilty of shooting out of line or getting caught with mismatches, but that has been rectified.

Because defences win matches these days, a well-organised and disciplined defence is hard to break down. It is a modern criticism of the game that with each passing year it seems to closer resemble rugby league.

With most of the defensive team spread across the field and happy to commit just one or two players to contest the ruck, teams take their chances by giving the opposition the ball.

In my opinion, referees are far too lax on the offside line, and it is ridiculous that the touch judges do not have a greater role to play in this.

Touch judges in rugby should be more like they are in soccer in making sure that the defensive side do not creep up or encroach illegally.

How often do we scream at the television when we see defenders gaining extra yards while the referee's back is turned? It makes it harder for the team with the ball to make it to the gain line, and easier for a flat hard defence to dominate.

Against Scotland, Ireland's defence was excellent. Schmidt and Farrell sat down and discussed where Scotland's main danger lay. They decided it was their out-half Finn Russell's passing game and Scotland's back three from a counter attack point of view.

Ireland realised that the Scottish back row could pose a potential threat out wide, where opensider Hamish Watson had been so effective in the Six Nations, but that they did not have a serious ball carrier up front.

Huge yardage

So Ireland attacked in tight, with CJ Stander, Henderson, Ryan and others making huge yardage with ball in hand.

We can expect that Ireland will defend the same way against a team like Japan who want the game to become loose.

Ireland will again dominate up front and strangle Japan's attack. Japan do have something that Scotland don't, namely a big strong No 8 who can get over the gain line.

Japan will try and get in behind Ireland's first line of defence and then move the ball wide, with a quicker offloading, unstructured game plan. Try as they will, it will not be enough, and Ireland should secure a bonus point win.

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