RWC 2019 Preview: Ireland wary of Japanese challenge

Japan look to improve from Russian win

After Ireland started their Rugby World 2019 campaign with a bonus point try win over Scotland, attention quickly turns to the host nation on Saturday. Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule over the Japanese challenge and highlights the players who may need extra attention paid by Joe Schmidt and management.

Opening Fixture Performance:

The opening game of the tournament and the hosts started quite nervously in front of an expectant home crowd. Russia to their credit played with massive work rate and physicality which unsettled Japan early doors. Russia’s early try coming from good cohesive pack play. An early question asked of Japan and to be fair to the side, they responded to the challenge once they started to execute their offloading game.

Key Strengths:

Matsushima will have taken the main headlines from the opening day win; his hat-trick show cased his pace and elusiveness when given quick ball but it was his colleagues around him that provided the key platform. Timothy Lafaele must be given due credit for his part in the opening try; tremendous offload under massive pressure creating the player overlap. Tupou pass to Matsushima was duly noted.

More efficient offloading was seen on the Japanese second try. Nakamura offload to Matsushima again on the money and the winger was not going to be stopped with the Russian defense stretched to breaking point. You are getting a trend / theme on the general Japanese play; the side is a different proposition when they are allowed to offload in the tackle.

The conditioning of the Japanese players is not in question; their familiarity with the local conditions will be an advantage this weekend. The home support will provide added support and energy. Ireland will need to silence the home crowd early; otherwise it could become an intriguing fixture very quickly.

Japanese Key Players:

Matsushima obviously due to his excellently taken hat-trick of tries; elusive player with ball in hand but his defensive setup is inconsistent at times and expect Ireland to target his channel next weekend.

Leitch is the key pack fulcrum for Japan

Michael Leitch remains the fulcrum, the heartbeat of the side. His stats from the Russian game may not have jumped off the page but the forward did a lot of grunt work during the contest; clear outs and dirty ball carries setting up the required platform. Leitch if allowed can be ultra-dynamic with ball in hand but the opening fixture saw his preparedness to roll up the sleeves and do the hard graft. Top quality player.

The player that surprised me massively against Russia was the number eight Kazuki Himeno. This was an all action performance. His numbers were outstanding. 113 meters gained. 13 tackles (100% success rate) and his ability to get over the gain line was pivotal in Japan slowly wrestling control from Russia.

Areas of Weakness:

The opening fixture exposed several key weak points to Japan’s play. The back three defensively and in general kicking was well below the test match standard. Their tendency to swarm infield was alarming in the opening period of the Russian fixture and Ireland will have ample opportunity to exploit this if a repeat performance is produced.

The aerial bomb is a massive weapon that I am not sure this Japanese back three will be able to manage effectively.

The pack platform and ability on set piece was a mixed bag against Russia who more than matched up with the host nation. The line out set piece for Russia was rarely troubled and the scrummaging where Japanese conceivably looked to have an advantage never materialized. Ireland’s set piece could turn the screw very quickly on the host nation at the weekend.

The offside officiating has been an utter joke in this tournament. Japan could be nailed in this facet of play this weekend; their line speed is borderline all the time and their enthusiasm to get up off the line will create kicking opportunities for Ireland to exploit in behind.

Final Thoughts:

Superb occasion beckons. The Japanese and Irish teams should provide a quality test match provided weather conditions are decent. Ireland’s performance will dictate the manner in which this contest unfolds; if they deliver a pack platform orientated display like against Scotland, the result is not in question.

If Ireland is inaccurate or management decides to rest key players, then the result gets interesting. Ireland should win this contest but Japan if given the platform to attack and buoyed by home support could be a more significant obstacle for Ireland than first anticipated. Roll on the weekend!