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Liberated Ireland attack takes big leap forward before ABs arrive

By Liam Heagney
James Lowe scored for Ireland against Japan last Saturday (Photo by PA)

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We came to a windy but sunny Lansdowne Road in search of signs against Japan of a continuation from last March that this ‘New Ireland’ under Andy Farrell was a project worth cheerleading following their clinical dismissal of England last time out in the Six Nations. We left enthused by what was witnessed, a sumptuous 60-5, nine-try display that will have Farrell salivating that his team can now confidently have cut off the All Blacks next weekend.   

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Ireland may have edged Japan by eight points in a summer series encounter since that schooling of England but not much concrete could be read into that fixture given that this Jamie Joseph side had only just emerged from its post-2019 World Cup cold storage.

Having run Australia close in recent weeks in Oita, this November 2021 meeting was instead going to be the real deal 26 months on from the infamous Japanese ambush that still has Irish fans waking up in a cold sweat. Shizuoka is a name that to this day sends Irish heads into a spin given the upset that unfolded on that September Saturday two years ago. 

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Will Genia guests on the latest RugbyPass Offload
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That was a Joe Schmidt Ireland team with Farrell lurking in the background as his wingman, his guilty fingerprints all over the defeat as much as the Kiwi’s who has lately emerged as a consultant for the Blues in Auckland after handing in his notice as World Rugby’s high-performance boss.   

In nominating an XV containing a whopping twelve starters from Leinster, Farrell was going with just four survivors from that awful day of days in the Far East in the guise of Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Josh van der Flier and Garry Ringrose up against a Japanese XV featuring nine of the very same starters who bloodied a tier-one giant that was then put out of its misery a few weeks later by a rampant All Blacks in Tokyo.  

You could be misled if this statistic of Ireland having eleven different starters was definitive evidence that this is indeed a new era under Farrell. Whereas Hugo Keenan, James Lowe, Jamison-Gibson Park, Ronan Kelleher and Caelan Doris are all newcomers on the ex-England assistant’s watch, the continued reliance on Johnny Sextonwho missed the Japanese match in Shizuoka through injury – suggested an evolution with the handbrake still on.   

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Now 36, ever since Sexton saw off Ronan O’Gara in 2013 after their feisty selection battle, the No10 Ireland jersey has unmistakably belonged to the Dubliner and no one has come near to giving him some O’Gara-like competition in the eight years since then. It is a huge concern. Look at how his absence through injury also proved costly at the 2015 World Cup.    

But what can you do when the pretenders have yet to convince you they can knock the veteran off his perch? On this auspicious occasion of his 100th Test cap for Ireland, the skipper was excellent, looking more like the youthful buck he was from a decade ago than the flaky version that Warren Gatland said thanks but no thanks to earlier this year with the Lions.

With Gibson-Park producing by far his best display yet at Test level, Sexton had every opportunity to remind everyone that he continues to be the main man for Ireland and while his afternoon started with a duff pass that required rescuing by Gibson-Park, he went on to supremely marshal his team around the joint and he signed off against Japan with a tremendously celebrated try on 48 minutes. 

It was no surprise he left chuffed by what unfolded, gushing to the crowd in the aftermath over the stadium PA: “I will remember it forever so thank you very much.” His few words brought the house down in an enthusiastic fashion and Irish supporters headed away into the afternoon sun giddily wondering if Farrell can now repeat the twin successes enjoyed under Schmidt against the All Blacks.  

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Whereas Farrell came in for some damaging slings and arrows following a bogus start to the 2021 Six Nations where matches were consecutively lost and major questions were asked about how poor their attack appeared under the baton of assistant Mike Catt, here they looked excellent going forward. Their play was jammed with variation, the sort of unpredictability that they didn’t have in their armour during a February to forget. 

The pity about it all was that the IRFU got their ticket pricing wrong. Instead of marketing this game as a festival of rugby aimed at getting the grassroots in through the gates for the first match since February 2020 with the stadium opened to full capacity, they went all out looking for top dollar and were left embarrassed by an attendance where the number of seats left vacant was as daft as the purple coloured kit they played in. 

Those optics aside, there was plenty to otherwise cheer. With Gibson-Park demonstrating a slickness in his execution previously not much seen in his game at Test level, Ireland started like a Shinkansen and they accelerated three tries clear inside 19 minutes with crisp passes from the scrum-half pivotal to two of the scores from Lowe and Andrew Conway and his liberating grubber central to the another from Conway.    

With their forwards all enjoying positive moments, the question was could Ireland now keep this momentum going and ensure they delivered an acceptably complete performance? The answer was affirmative, Gibson-Park the deserved beneficiary of a fourth try before an interval where the only disappointment was that Ireland failed to convert from a pair of five-metre scrums in the closing minutes, the second with Japan a man down to a yellow card.  

In fairness, it was the only obvious attacking setback in an otherwise polished performance as Ireland kept the foot on the accelerator in the second half to bag further tries from Sexton, Bundee Aki, Ringrose, Conway again and finally from Cian Healy. No wonder ‘Bring on the All Blacks’ was the end-game message on a day when the Farrell era took a positive few steps forward.   

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