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Sexton's absence puts Ireland back in the 2015 territory they vowed would never be repeated

By Liam Heagney
An injured Johnny Sexton watches in 2015 with Paul O'Connell as Ian Madigan starts the quarter-final against Argentina (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

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Fresh from their uplifting destruction of Scotland in Yokohama, Ireland now go in search of making it two wins from two when they take on World Cup host nation Japan in Shizuoka on Saturday.


Here, RugbyPass assesses some of the dynamics surrounding the eagerly awaited Pool A encounter against the Japanese who got their own World Cup campaign off to a win over Russia last weekend in Tokyo.

Johnny Sexton’s absence, the Irish losing streak against RWC host nations and the return of the Conor Murray aerial bomb are among the topics highlighted ahead of their second match at the finals.

No Johnny, no drama?

Being without Johnny Sexton isn’t the situation Joe Schmidt would have wanted for this big World Cup match against host nation Japan.

It was December 2015, two months after their Sexton-less capitulation to Argentina in the quarter-finals, when IRFU high-performance boss David Nucifora promised mistakes would be rectified and that Ireland wouldn’t again be winging it in huge RWC games with inexperienced starters like Ian Madigan, who had just five Test starts as a No10 when given the jersey against Los Pumas.

(Continue reading below…)

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However, this vow to cement experience into the back-up options if Sexton was ever to be injured again hasn’t gone to plan as Jack Carty has come from nowhere in 2019 to get the nod to take over at No10 from the pained Sexton against the Japanese. 

You can partly blame Paddy Jackson getting sacked by the IRFU for this awkward situation that has materialised despite Ireland playing 45 matches since the last World Cup and having ample opportunity to better build their squad depth in the key flyhalf position. 

With Schmidt selecting Sexton at No10 in 28 of those games and also handing nine starts to Jackson, there was not a whole lot of exposure left for anyone else to enjoy as the Ireland No10. Carbery was given six starts before his August injury versus Italy, with Ross Byrne and Carty only getting their first starts in the subsequent World Cup warm-ups prior to Japan.  


That has left Schmidt caught in a Madigan-type situation which Nucifora insisted nearly four years ago would not be happening again on his watch. 

The bad sequence of results against RWC hosts  

An Ireland win against a host nation at a World Cup is long overdue. Co-hosts Australia battered the Irish in a Sydney quarter-final in the first finals in 1987, Scotland then dished out a beating at Murrayfield in a 1991 pool match, while France were far too good for a befuddled Irish XV in a 2007 group encounter in Paris. 

That rotten run must now stop if Joe Schmidt’s Class of 2019 are to consolidate their grip as favourites to win Pool A. One curiosity surrounding the fixture, though, is how Ireland’s last encounter against the Japanese at Shizuoka has only had a follow-through for a limited number of players.  

The two-week 2017 tour to Japan while the British and Irish Lions tour was on in New Zealand was billed as a dry-run for these Japanese finals, but 13 of the matchday 23 from that Ecopa Stadium win failed to get selected in Ireland’s 31-man squad for the World Cup 27 months later. 

Simon Zebo and Paddy Jackson were ineligible as they now play their club rugby abroad, Rory Scannell, Devin Toner, Finlay Bealham and Kieran Marmion were in the RWC training squad but missed out on the 31, Quinn Roux, James Tracy, Kieran Treadwell, Jack O’Donoghue, Rory O’Loughlin and Tiernan O’Halloran were overlooked altogether while Dan Leavy was injured. 

Garry Ringrose, Keith Earls and Cian Healy are the only three repeat starters from the 50-22 win in Shizuoka, with Luke McGrath and Rhys Ruddock dropping to the bench on this occasion.

Murray’s bomb is back in vogue

Warren Gatland certainly isn’t a fan of Ireland’s play, the Wales boss having a dig when his team were choked in the second half of the recent warm-up encounter in Dublin. His view won’t have changed despite the Irish demolition job on Scotland at the World Cup, but no Irish fan will give a fig for what their 1999 World Cup coach thinks. 

Ireland go about their business in a certain clinical way under Joe Schmidt and it was no coincidence that Conor Murray’s return to top form came in a match when the Irish kicked the ball from the hand on 39 occasions. 

Only Russia on opening night kicked as much in the opening dozen matches at World Cup 2019, Japan kicking 33 times, Tonga 31 and New Zealand 30 before the numbers dip into the 20s and even fall to Australia’s meagre 12 versus Fiji and the Fijians’ tally of just nine kicks versus Uruguay. 

Murray’s contestable kicking was a massive weapon during Ireland’s stellar 2018 and it appears as if his bomb is now back in vogue judging by the problems his 14 kicks from the hand caused the Scots, particularly amid the second-half deluge in Yokohama. More of the same in Shizuoka and the Japanese will be very much put on the back foot.  

The one area where Ireland lost out to the Scots

The Japanese haven’t been shy in alleging skullduggery at the scrum by Cian Healy. It is purely gamesmanship aimed at planting a seed in the mind of referee Angus Gardner and his team of officials, but Ireland will still be concerned about ensuring they do get the rub of the green.

Joe Schmidt teams are normally well behaved, yet the one black mark from their demolition over Scotland last Sunday was how they came out the wrong side of Wayne Barnes’ penalty count, Ireland conceding seven penalties to Scotland’s six. 

It was a curious statistic as Ireland in their nine previous matches in 2019 had never come off worse on the penalty count. They had given up a total of 67 penalties prior to Yokohama, on average seven a match, compared to the oppositions’ total of 89, on average nearly 10 a match. But on this occasion, they were deemed to be the naughtier side. 

Lightning strikes twice

Ireland’s lineout has come in for much scrutiny throughout 2019. With just 104 of 124 throws safely secured during their nine matches prior to RWC, their set-piece was running at just an 83 per cent success rate and there were fears that their ten from 15 success rate at Twickenham in August could fester and carry on into the World Cup. 

However, Rory Best was as right as rain in Yokohama, his official figure of 12/12 against Scotland giving Ireland their first 100 pert cent return at the lineout since last February’s 11/11 in their previous win over the Scots at Murrayfield. 

With the same starting pack now chosen for Shizuoka, there is every confidence last Sunday’s set-piece reliability can now continue against the Japanese and give Ireland a winning platform, especially when it comes to catch and drive opportunities inside the opposition 22. 

WATCH: Ireland train ahead of their vital World Cup clash against host nation Japan

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