Japan Rugby WCup Japan IrelandSpectators celebrate after Japan's Kenki Fukuoka scored a try during the Rugby World Cup Pool A game during a public-viewing event in Fukuoka western Japan, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (Takuto Kaneko/Kyodo News via AP)
SHIZUOKA, Japan (AP) — Nobody seemed less surprised than Jamie Joseph and his Japan players after the Rugby World Cup hosts toppled Ireland 19-12 in one of the tournament's greatest upsets.
In a remarkable show of practicing what they preached, Japan gave the Irish a 12-3 start on Saturday and then nothing else but headaches and bruises. Such was Japan's speed on attack, the Irish felt they were chasing shadows. And such was Japan's speed in defense, the Irish got jittery and lapsed into uncharacteristic errors.
Ireland was ranked No. 1 coming into the tournament, but all week the Japanese players spoke about how confident they were. Winger Lomano Leki even predicted a win by eight points. The talk appeared to be mere hype to attract more local fans — the match was 3,000 short of a sellout. After all, what did Japan have to be confident about?
They'd never beaten Ireland. Conceded an average 48 points to them over 28 years of despair. But coach Joseph revealed they had been audaciously targeting this Ireland side.
"We have been preparing for this game a hell of a lot longer than the Irish have," Joseph said. "The last year at least, if not the last three years. The Irish have been thinking about this game since Monday."
Incredibly, the planning bore a sequel to their famed defeat of two-time champion South Africa in the 2015 World Cup, dubbed the Miracle of Brighton. This was not entirely a Shocker at Shizuoka, but it sparked jubilant celebrations at Rugby World Cup fan zones and pubs across the country.
At the first Rugby World Cup staged in Asia, Japan supporters are growing in confidence that their team will qualify for the quarterfinals for the first time.
The Irish knew what was coming. They were braced for impact. Both teams had put nerves to rest, Ireland more impressively in humbling Scotland 27-3, while the Japanese got past Russia 30-10 on the opening night of the tournament. Japan was the big favorite against Russia, but on Saturday they were the underdogs reinforced by smart tactics and deep belief.
They went after Ireland out wide, working the ball lightning quick for center Timothy Lafaele, Lemeki, Kotaro Matsushima and fullback Ryohei Yamanaka to have the Irish defense backpedaling. They were relentless, as was the defense, to doubling up the tackles and rushing to reform the line.
"A big focus for us was to put two in the tackle because we knew how hard they would come at us," Joseph said. "They surprised us with their kicking game to our wings and they caught us out a couple of times."
That was in the first quarter when flyhalf Jack Carty, in place for the injured Jonathan Sexton and making his second career start, directed Ireland with veteran confidence. His crosskick set up a Garry Ringrose try, and his chip was tapped back by Ringrose for fullback Rob Kearney to score.
Ireland led 12-3 after 21 minutes and appeared to be in ominous form. But they didn't score again.
Regular captain Mitchel Leitch was brought off the reserves bench for Japan when No. 8 Amanaki Mafi left clutching his side after half an hour. He blew Kearney off a ruck, triggering roars from the crowd, who cheered for every tackle and turnover.
Ireland wilted under the pressure and Japan flyhalf Yu Tamura, controlling the attack with scrumhalf Yutaka Nagare, kicked three penalties to cut Ireland's lead to 12-9 at the break. Ireland had won 28 times in a row over more than three years in games when it led at halftime, and there was no reason to believe it would not push on in characteristic style.
But Japan grew in belief, pushing Ireland off a scrum and forcing errors, including one which led to its go-ahead try. Chris Farrell ran into CJ Stander behind their scrum in their 22, giving the ball to Japan. Off the third ruck, a miss-pass from Nakamura flicked on by Timothy Lafaele found winger Kenki Fukuoka on the outside to score.
Fukuoka was a late addition to the reserves bench, and back only three weeks after injuring his calf muscle.
"I'm filled with joy," he said. "I've targeted being fit for this game ... The call-up came suddenly but I was prepared."
He didn't have enough condition, however, to take a spilled catch by Ireland 50 meters to the posts, but the Irish gave away an offside penalty and Tamura's boot extended their lead to seven. They easily contained Ireland for seven more minutes to complete their plan, capped by a roar from the crowd of 48,800 that was likely heard 180 kilometers away in the capital.
Joseph enjoyed the moment, but was cautious. It was only Japan's second win from two games. They won three pool games in 2015 and still missed the quarterfinals. Japan has to play Samoa next Saturday, then Scotland on Oct. 13. It was Scotland which prevented Japan from reaching the quarterfinals four years ago.
Ireland was stunned but undaunted, and looking forward to Russia in five days to get past this letdown.
"We're incredibly disappointed that we didn't manage to control the end of the game but they are a tremendous side," Ireland coach Joe Schmidt said. "Congratulations to Japan. What a furious, intense effort it was. We knew it was potentially coming."