Ireland's hopes of topping World Cup group still possible

JEROME PUGMIRE (AP Sports Writer)
The Associated Press

FUKUOKA, Japan (AP) -- Ireland still gets a chance to finish top of its Rugby World Cup group - for now.

The Irish are jostling with Japan for top spot in Pool A, having lost to the hosts, and need to beat Samoa in Fukuoka on Saturday while hoping the Scots win against the Japanese on Sunday.

The impending arrival of Typhoon Hagibis hitting Japan has forced the cancellation of Saturday's two other scheduled matches - the Pool C decider between England and France at Yokohama, near Tokyo, and the Pool B game between New Zealand and Italy in Toyota.

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''The teams that have been cancelled can probably go to each others' hotels and sit down and have a beer together,'' Samoa coach Steve Jackson said. ''We all want a spectacle and everyone wants to watch teams play but at the end of the day, from what we understand, the degree of this typhoon is pretty bad. The right decision's been made.''

It's the first time games have been canceled at rugby's showpiece tournament, and while Ireland vs. Samoa is still going ahead it could yet be called off. So could the Japan-Scotland game in Yokohama.

''It's more frustrating for the English, French, New Zealanders and Italians. Scotland-Japan, there's no decision on it,'' Ireland captain Rory Best said on Thursday. ''From our point of view, that makes it easier because we go out, we play our game. You assume the game goes ahead on Sunday and, if it doesn't, you cross that bridge when you come to it.''

Fukuoka is on the north shore of Kyushu Island and, according to weather experts, was initially the most threatened by the typhoon. The main impact is now expected to be closer to Tokyo. All games that are canceled because of weather are logged as scoreless draws, and each team will get two competition points.

Heading into the last weekend of pool games, Japan leads its pool with 14 points. Ireland is three points behind in second spot. Scotland is in third spot with 10 points and needs to beat Japan to have any chance of qualifying for the knockout stage.

Ireland routed Scotland 27-3 and Russia 35-0, either side of an upset 19-12 loss to Japan. The game against Samoa represents a chance for Ireland to work on improvements.

''We got ourselves into a bit of trouble in the Russian game, chasing that bonus point. Once we'd got the three tries it took us about another 25 minutes before we got the next one,'' coach Joe Schmidt said Thursday. ''Sometimes you've just got to make sure, when you're looking after the ball, that you can retain it and keep the pressure on, keep the squeeze on.''

Samoa lost to Japan 38-19 last Saturday, but competed strongly for long spells.

Ireland lock Iain Henderson expects Samoa to come out aggressively from the outset, despite being out of contention.

''They're going to be ultra-excited to get the ball in their hand, they're going to be looking to do as much damage to us as possible,'' he said. ''If you look at the way Japan started against us, that's a good indication of what Samoa are going to try and do.''

Schmidt has made 11 changes from the Russia game, as he did for the Russia match after losing to Japan.

The four players who remain are back-rower Tadhg Beirne, flyhalf Jonny Sexton, center Bundee Aki and winger Keith Earls.

Beirne, who moves from lock to flanker, has been impressive.

''He's been really solid, he's been versatile for us,'' Schmidt said. ''His ability to put pressure on the ball on the ground, his lineout work has been good. He gives us a little bit more height in the lineout.''

Earls switches wings from left to right, and Best captains Ireland at hooker for the 37th time - overtaking hooker Keith Wood in second place behind Brian O'Driscoll's national record of 83.

Jackson's Samoa side dealt confidently with Russia, winning 34-9 in a bruising encounter, then lost to Scotland 34-0.

''We're going to go all guns blazing this weekend against Ireland,'' back-rower Josh Tyrell said. ''The Japanese did something amazing (against Ireland) and we're hoping to follow their footsteps. Ireland is a well-organized machine that keeps going and going and never stops. So we are hoping to get in there and tweak up the machine and smash it.''

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Lineups:

Ireland: Jordan Larmour, Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; CJ Stander, Josh Van der Flier, Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Furlong, Rory Best (captain), Cian Healy. Reserves: Niall Scannell, Dave Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter, Jean Kleyn, Peter O'Mahony, Luke McGrath, Joey Carbery, Andrew Conway.

Samoa: Tim Nanai-Williams, Ah See Tuala, Alapati Leiua, Henry Taefu, Ed Fidow, Ulupano Seuteni, Dwayne Polataivao; Jack Lam (captain), TJ Ioane, Chris Vui, Kane Le'aupepe, Teofilo Paulo, Michael Alaalatoa, Seilala Lam, Logovii Mulipola. Reserves: Ray Niuia, Paul Alo-Emile, Jordan Lay, Piula Faasalele, Josh Tyrell, Pele Cowley, Tusi Pisi, Kieron Fonotia.

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