James Ryan said the pressure Ireland wanted to apply in the second half of Saturday’s game came right back in their faces as an inspired Japan side etched their names into Rugby World Cup history once again.
It was a monumental 19-12 victory for the Brave Blossoms, a shock result which squad captain Michael Leitch admitted was years in the planning and just as good as their famous defeat of South Africa in Brighton at the last World Cup.
“Last time we went in under no pressure where no one believed we could win, given the Japan team’s past record in the tournament being bad, and beating South Africa had a big impact on Japanese rugby,” said Leitch.
“This time against Ireland, second-ranked team in the world, and under real pressure with all the expectations from those around us as hosts, that must have had a big impact. So when asked which was better, I’d say there’s no such difference. They’re both fantastic wins.”
Ryan has fond memories of coming off the bench during Ireland’s 2017 series-clinching triumph over Japan in Tokyo – just a few weeks before his 21st birthday. But, two years on, it was very much a Shizuoka nightmare for the young second row and his team-mates as Jamie Joseph’s men won the final hour 16-0 in front of their raucous home support.
“We gave them three points here and there which gave them belief and changed the momentum of the game but, to give credit to them, I thought they were class today and they deserved their victory,” insisted Ryan, who has played the full 160 minutes of Ireland’s first two Pool A matches.
“The message at half time was just ‘pressure’. We could have started better, we didn’t start as well as last week and we were letting them play too much. So, we looked to apply more pressure in the second half. When the subs came on, we did apply decent defensive pressure at times, I think, but it wasn’t consistent enough.
“They love playing with the ball off the deck, just that kind of tempo game. So the biggest challenge in that is making sure you are ahead of the game and are ready to go. A couple of times we weren’t set and they punished us.”
Japan rate themselves as the fittest team at this World Cup and they were certainly full of running right to the end, with replacement Kenki Fukuoka, their 58th-minute try-scoring hero, going very close to running in a late intercept score. Their familiarity with the humid conditions was another factor in their fight-back from conceding two first quarter tries.
The intense heat and a shorter turnaround were no excuses for Ryan, though, as he reflected on a hugely disappointing night at the office. Fortunately, Thursday’s clash with Russia in Kobe gives Joe Schmidt’s charges a quick-fire chance to restore confidence and get their quarter-final bid back on track.
“I played here (in Japan) two years ago and my abiding memory of it was the tempo and the pace they played at. They have brought in more players since then. Look across the board at their team. You had Michael Leitch coming off the bench who is very strong and Fumiaki Tanaka, the scrum half is a really good player.
“It was a tough game, especially the way they play. Definitely we were blowing a bit. But we can’t use any excuse. We knew for a while it was going to be a six-day turnaround. It is all about reaction now. We’ll pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and go again. And that is our intention.”
Meanwhile, Rhys Ruddock, who captained Ireland during the closing stages after coming off the bench, said the camp cannot be too downbeat as they can still finish first or second in Pool A and draw a line under what happened at the Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa.
“That feeling of disappointment is not going to go away, but there’s still a lot to play for and the strength of the group will be determined by the way that we bounce back,” admitted Ruddock, following Ireland’s first loss in 16 World Cup meetings with tier two opposition.
“We’ve already spoken about that. We’re going to be tested now as a group, as a collective, in terms of what we’re about, so everything we do between now and Russia will add up to a performance that will either make us or break us.”
Having recovered from the ankle injury he sustained against Italy last month, Munster’s Joey Carbery made his World Cup debut as a replacement out-half midway through the second half. One of the main talking points afterwards was the decision to kick the ball dead past the 80-minute mark, which ultimately secured what could prove to be a vital losing bonus point.
Asked about that final kick of the game, Carbery said: “I suppose we were under pressure (near our own try-line) and there wasn’t too much happening at the time. The ball kinda came quickly to me. I knew we were still in with a losing bonus point and I didn’t see too many other options on, so I just put it out (to touch).
“When the ball came to me, they were up in my face. I didn’t want to risk it with a short kick or anything like that and concede. I haven’t looked back at it yet but, at the time, I thought it was the right option.”
Like many of his team-mates, the 23-year-old was eager to move on to Russia and right the wrongs of a sloppy, scoreless second half display in Shizuoka. He felt Japan managed to ‘suffocate us in attack’ and ‘we were in good parts of the pitch but dropped the ball or conceded a penalty here and there’.
“It’s really disappointing now but all we can do is take the learnings and get the most out of it. As a collective, we let ourselves down. When the going got tough, we should have come together but we didn’t and lost a few moments. We need to come together and try and win the next moment.
“We can definitely turn it around. We just need to focus on our recovery now. It’s a five-day turnaround to the next game so we need to regroup and get as much as we can out of Russia,” added Carbery.