SHIZUOKA, Japan — The Miracle of Brighton has a sequel. Japan shook up the Rugby World Cup with another seismic result in beating Ireland 19-12 on Saturday.
Finding Ireland vulnerable on the edges through its zippy backs, and employing suffocating line speed that checked the Irish attack, Japan pulled off what some many consider an even bigger surprise than their famed defeat of South Africa in the 2015 World Cup in Brighton, England, one of sport’s great upsets.
Ireland, unlike the Springboks four years, weren’t taking the Japanese lightly. They knew exactly what was coming, and a team that was ranked No. 1 just a week ago, a team that averaged 48 points against Japan, was overcome and kept to zero in the second half.
The Irish led 12-3 after the first quarter and looked to be rolling ominously.
But Japan, emboldened by its raucous home fans, found the Irish weak on the wings and began to pin them back in their own half, earning pressure penalties that flyhalf Yu Tamura slotted.
Japan trailed only 12-9 at halftime, which came as a relief to Ireland.
The Irish typically finish strong, but the unrelenting tackling from the Japanese in the second half rattled them. When star winger Kenki Fukuoka, a late addition to the reserves after recovering from a calf muscle injury, crossed in the 59th minute, the try and Japan’s first lead in the match was richly deserved.
Tamura converted and added a penalty, and minutes later fulltime was greeted by a roar that was probably heard 180 kilometers away in the capital.
Ireland’s confidence was high coming off an emphatic 27-3 win over Scotland in Yokohama, a far more impressive opener than Japan getting past Russia 30-10 nervously on opening night.
And the Irish started brilliantly.
Flyhalf Jack Carty, in place for the injured Jonathan Sexton and making his second career start, was directing Ireland with veteran confidence.
His crosskick to Garry Ringrose was pinpoint to the center to catch and score for their first try. Not long after that, Carty’s chip was tapped back by Ringrose over his shorter opposite Ryoto Nakamura for fullback Rob Kearney to catch and dive to the tryline.
After 21 minutes, Ireland led 12-3 and was on its way … back into its own half, where it spent most of the rest of the match.
No. 8 Amanaki Mafi came out of a ruck clutching his side and was replaced by regular captain Mitchel Leitch, who was supposed to be rested but led his side in hurling himself at green jerseys and cutting them down with increasing regularity.
Japan continued to probe the outsides and pushed Ireland off its scrum ball for the reward of two more Tamura penalty kicks, and a near try in injury time. Hooker Shota Horie, who’d already made 10 carries, seven tackles, one turnover, and one lineout steal in the half, kicked ahead for Lomano Lemeki, but the ball just beat him into touch.
Ireland was only three points up, but it had won 28 matches in a row over more than three years when it led at halftime.
But halftime was only a brief respite for Ireland.
Japan stayed on attack, preying on turnovers and Irish fumbles and bumbles.
Japan’s try came from an error. From a scrum in its own 22, Chris Farrell ran into CJ Stander and gave scrum ball to Japan. The home side flew into contact, set up rucks, and a miss-pass from Nakamura flicked on by Timothy Lafaele found Fukuoka on the outside to score.
Ireland had a response, and went through the phases into the Japan 22, but Van der Flier was caught holding on too long and Conor Murray knocked on to end another surge.
The Irish gave away an offside penalty at the other end, Tamura’s boot extended Japan’s lead, and they had to wait only seven more minutes for lightning to strike twice.