With both teams comfortably negotiating their opening games of Pool A, Ireland and Japan met in a game where the Irish were strong favourites based on past results and performances. This article will look at how Japan attacking the edges unsettled Ireland and set alight the World Cup with a historic win for the hosts.
Before we jump into how Japan attack, it’s important to look at Ireland’s defence and why Japan’s attack-finishing with 503 metres gained for the game-had so much success against them.
If you look at the picture above, you’ll notice a few things in Ireland’s defensive line.
Firstly with the line itself, rather than being straight, it curves with players coming out of the line both at the ruck and further out in the 13 channel. This is the case with many rush defences but is accentuated in Ireland’s case by one player always rushing out of the line to tackle the would-be ball carrier.
Secondly, like many other teams including the All Blacks, Ireland have their front three forwards-circled in red-sitting off a little in the midfield.
The idea behind this is to have your slowest players in the middle of the field-where they can’t get exposed as often-and having your faster defenders wider out to face the oppositions faster attackers.
Having looked at Ireland’s defence, take a look at what Japan do in next in the following GIF.
Rather than looking to run into the teeth of Ireland’s onrushing defence, Japan sit a little deeper, use passing to attack the edges and exploit the space that Ireland’s rush defence has given them.
In the particular case above, Ireland’s Tadgh Furlong has come out of the line here, with Cian Healy also sitting too far back; leaving a massive gap to attack between them. Yu Tamura sees this and passes into the space beyond Furlong to put his teammate into the gap.
Japan would continually look to draw Ireland’s defenders out of the line, attack the space on the edge with passes just beyond the rushing defender and would get big gains as a result.
Indeed, this phase of play would almost end in a Japanese try with Yutaku Nagare again looking to pass beyond the onrushing defender and Kotaro Matsushima nearly getting on the end of a grubber kick as Japan again attacked the soft edges of Ireland’s defence.
In the following 30 minutes, Ireland would largely hold on to the ball and ended up scoring two tries of their own. However, even in those early stages, Ireland were conceding a lot of penalties defensively as they struggled to adapt to the pace of Japan’s attack and the refereeing interpretations of Angus Gardner.
We can see how this starts to come to bear in the following images.
After an overthrow at the lineout, Shota Horie first claims the ball. With no passing options or Irish defenders rushing out of the defence on their own, Horie sees a mismatch and runs at the lighter Jack Carty to make more metres for Japan.
Having got gain-line, Japan then look to pass to the edge again while targeting Irish defenders rushing out of the line.
Ireland do well to scramble after this passage and reset their defensive line. Having been burnt by the pass three times on the previous play, Ireland focus on keeping a solid defensive line rather than having players shoot up on their own.
In situations like this where Ireland aren’t giving them ‘looks’ in defence, Japan-this time through James Moore-take a leaf out of Horie’s book earlier in the play and run into lighter defenders on the edge. Carty-circled above-is again the man targeted as a lighter defender that gives Japan a chance to get over the gain-line.
After 7 phases of lung-bursting attack, Jiwon Koo again attacks the lighter edge defender and wins a penalty; with Conor Murray penalised by Gardner for not bearing his own body-weight.
Japan’s ability to regularly find an edge through passing or carrying into lighter defenders had Ireland continually on the back foot throughout this game. While it didn’t always end in a try early on, this unrelenting attack forced Ireland into making fatigue errors and conceding penalties that got Japan back into the game.
Rolling on to the 58th minute, Japan finally get that try by again looking for the edge. It starts with Nakamura running at the lighter Ringose instead of Chris Farrell.
With Ireland now on the back foot, Japan again look to isolate the lighter defender and use a switch play off 9 to run at Conor Murray instead of Ireland’s no. 8 CJ Stander.
After three more phases of attack and another penalty advantage, Japan have found their edge to pass to in attack, with Murray-circled-coming out of the line and Rob Kearney sitting off.
Nakamura does a great job of getting his head up here to see the pass and Timothy Lafaele shows soft hands to put Kenki Fukuoka away on the edge for the match-winning try.
While this analysis could have talked about the 1-3-2-2 structure Japan use in attack, attack is often as much about adapting to the ‘looks’ the opposition’s defence gives you in defence as it is about imposing your attacking structure on teams. In Japan’s case, it was a perfect storm of both.
By passing and running to the where the advantage is, Japan’s attack is living on the edge at this year’s World Cup and setting the host country alight while doing it.
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