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'They've been sitting there waiting': Odds stacked against Japan in Dublin

By Sam Smith
(Photo by PA Images)

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Japan have the chance to avenge their most recent loss to Ireland and potentially claim a first away victory over the Celtic nation in Dublin this weekend.

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An Ireland side shorn of their British and Irish Lions were able to secure a 39-31 victory over Japan at the Aviva Stadium in July, despite the Brave Blossoms taking a 5-point lead early in the second half.

That match marked the first time the two sides had played since Japan’s inspired performance at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, which saw the home nation record a historic 19-12 win over the visitors and take pole position in their pool.

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While Ireland have had as packed a schedule over the past two years as any other top nation, Japan have played just three international games since their World Cup heroics – suffering three straight losses to the British and Irish Lions, Ireland and, most recently, Australia.

The Brave Blossoms were in touching distance of the Wallabies for the majority of the match played in Oita and even had a chance of scoring a first-ever victory going into the final five minutes, down 23-27, but the visitors had the last laugh and scored from a rolling maul to claim a well-deserved 32-23 win.

Despite their lack of luck in recent times, however, Japan have taken the field more recently than the Irish, who haven’t played a match since flogging the USA Eagles 71-10 just a week after earning their win over the Brave Blossoms earlier this season.

Even then, that was without the majority of Ireland’s top players, which means the full-strength side’s last game came in March, when they tipped over England in the final round of the Six Nations.

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As such, there may be a few things going in Japan’s favour this weekend – but both teams are still relatively undercooked at this early stage of the Autumn Nations Series.

Speaking on the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, former All Black James Parsons has admitted it’s hard to get a gauge on where either team stands at this point in time.

“I just think both sides have got a little bit of unknown about them, having not been able to play for a bit,” he said. “Japan, we saw against Aussie, and that was a great showing but it’s one thing to do that at home, and then [another] to go to Dublin and win a test match and the Irish will be up for it. They’ve been sitting there waiting.”

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Parsons’ fellow panellist, Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall, acknowledged that while Japan had performed well against Australia, they’d be playing in vastly different conditions in Dublin.

“You look at that 77th minute against Australia, they were in that game, and if it weren’t for Rob Valetini making that steal to be able to ice the game, Japan were right into that game,” Hall said. “I think the improvement for them moving forward is knowing that it’s going to be in France in 2023, and the conditions could be a little more different than they’re accustomed to, being at home, being a lot hotter and [playing with a] dry ball.

“What I did like in Japan, they probably didn’t get the execution right with the contestable aspect but they’ve got the game to be able to do that. I don’t know what the weather’s going to be like in Ireland, it could be a little bit wet, but we know how much of a [fast] tempo mindset that the Japanese do have.

“I did see in that game, they had the likes of the box kick, being able to have it set up really quickly so if they feel like they’re not able to go anywhere, at least they’ve got the mindset to be able to … put a contestable up off 9 or they might do it off 10. I was really happy to be able to see that because knowing that [they’ll] go to the Northern Hemisphere, having that in your toolbox, having to go from Plan A to Plan B … I think that’s going to be real crucial for Japan moving forward.

“But then I think, as well, their set-piece, having that parity in set-piece is always going to be something really important going into Ireland because no doubt, if you’re Ireland, you want to really dominate that set-piece through scrum and lineout and if Japan can run at that 85-90 per cent and nail moments with that set-piece – and big moments – and win a lineout, win a scrum when they need to, then they could be in a very similar situation like they were against Australia.”

Parsons agreed that the biggest work-on for Japan is at the set-piece, with their solid work at the scrums and lineouts in Oita paving the way for their backs to unleash some strong backline plays.

“I think the other key is the maul D as well, that’s where they probably lost the game, that was Aussie’s last try, and that will be big for them on this tour,” the former hooker said. “They really need to aim up and have a plan around how they’re going to stop these driving mauls because the opportunities will come – it’s rugby. And they’ve got to make sure they don’t make it as easy as they did for the Wallabies at the end of that game.”

Both Hall and Parsons suggested that Japan will benefit from the trip north and that despite not being favourites for the match, a win for the touring Brave Blossoms could help to continue to shake up world rugby.

“Any time you can play against a top-tier nation away from home, especially in the Northern Hemishphere, it’s only going to be able to make you better as a team,” Hall said.

“I’m excited by this test match and I think, man, if Japan could do something special, it would really spice up international rugby,” said Parsons. “Whenever they do do these big one-off wins, it’s big talking points in the game of sport, in general, not just rugby people talk it, but everyone starts talking it. So I think a victory away from home, in Ireland, would be huge for our game as a whole.

“Ireland [will win] for me. I just think at home, conditions, travel. It’s weighted in their favour. It’ll be close though.”

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