At this time of year, the so-called level two nations take the stage and thus trigger the final debates on their role and future. The Pacific Islands in particular seem to elicit heated opinions and there were plenty of expressions as Tonga suffered a horrific 102-0 maim at the hands of the All Blacks, while Japan continued to show their potential, although they eventually succumbed 39-31 to Ireland in Dublin.
Ireland were deprived of seven Lions, but chose a strong team, rich in Six Nations experience. A fabulous game followed, nine tries, all in the first hour when defenses are supposed to be fresh, most in response to an opposition try. So the lead changed hands all along.
The game was ready on time at 33-31 against Ireland, after another blur of discharges and leadership changes gave Japan their fourth try, but two penalties from Joey Carbery put the home side down. beyond the reach of another blitz. of visitors, a perpetual threat.
Japan impressed last Saturday, beating the Lions in the second half at Murrayfield, but were unable to summon the late scores that would have earned a repeat of their victory the last time they faced Ireland – during the group stages of the 2019 World Cup.
Ireland were good for the win, which isn’t to say Japan wouldn’t have been too. The visitors opened the scoring with a penalty from Maestro Yu Tamura before Ireland responded with first try Chris Farrell after one of Caelan Doris’ many energetic carries.
Japan responded with the kind of try most commonly associated with their hosts, a motivated roster, similar to what was made for South Africa in the most famous of all their victories over a Level One nation. Then they followed with a distinctly more Japanese affair, an unloading and hijacking nightmare for Ireland ending in a denied try, Tamura’s final pass to Timothy Lafaele seen as slightly forward.
Also enjoyable was the way Ireland seemed inspired by it all, ditching a try from Stuart McCloskey around the corner. But there was no denying Lafaele when he came by just before the break.
Tamura’s chip shots were wreaking havoc. The latter freed Siosaia Fifita, who combined with Lafaele with a disconcerting effect on the left for a 17-12 lead.
A mistake by Kotaro Matsushima on the stroke of half-time gave Ireland one last play before the break, which they exploited to the full, Finlay Bealham knocked down.
Both teams scored two tries in the third quarter, Ireland’s displays of power sandwiched by even more mind-boggling switch trials and Japanese inventions. Alas, the exhibition ran out of steam in the last quarter, but Japan’s fate to be welcomed into the august ranks of the first level seems fixed.
It helps them be fueled by one of the biggest economies in the world, so how poignant it was to see names like Fifita and Amanaki Mafi among their top players and then scour the Auckland scoreboard. Crusaders wing Will Jordan scored five of New Zealand’s 16 unanswered tries, Brad Weber three, in that horrific score.
Tonga’s lineage is responsible for some of the greatest players in history, but the desperation of such a small collection of islands against larger nations is a well-philosophized topic in rugby’s grand quest to deepen its pool of contenders. One thing is certain, such mismatches do nothing to further development. Much of the damage was done when the level one cabal initiated the “player capture” policy in 2000, whereby a person capped by one nation at one level was unable to play for another. The arguments for rescinding this punitive policy only grew with each attempt in Auckland.
In the meantime, another shift has occurred in Cardiff. A young Wales team has had a horrific start against visiting Canadians, who recently welcomed Rob Howley to their coaching panel. Leigh Halfpenny, in her 100th round, suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury in the first minute, before Canada scored the first try in the fifth. A beauty too, worthy of Japan. But the Welsh scored six of their next nine halftime tries to miss 68-12 winners.