At this time of year the so-called tier-two nations step on to the stage and so are triggered the latest debates about their role and future. Islands in the Pacific, in particular, seem to elicit passionate views and there were plenty expressed as Tonga suffered a hideous 102-0 mauling at the hands of the All Blacks, while Japan continued to show off their potential, even if they succumbed eventually 39-31 to Ireland in Dublin.
Ireland were without seven Lions but picked a strong side, brimful of Six Nations experience. A fabulous match ensued, nine tries, all of them in the first hour when defences are meant to be fresh, most of them in response to a try by the opposition. Thus the lead changed hands throughout.
The match was poised on the hour at 33-31 to Ireland, after yet another blur of off-loads and changes of direction had yielded Japan their fourth try, but two penalties by Joey Carbery took the home team beyond the reach of another lightning try from the visitors, a perpetual threat.
Japan had impressed last Saturday, outscoring the Lions in the second half at Murrayfield, but were unable to summon the late scores that would have earned a repeat of their win the last time they played Ireland – in the pool stages of the 2019 World Cup.
Ireland were good for the win, which is not to say Japan would not have been too. The visitors opened the scoring with a penalty by the maestro Yu Tamura before Ireland responded with the first try, Chris Farrell over after one of many forceful carries from Caelan Doris.
Japan responded with the sort of try more commonly associated with their hosts, a driven lineout, not dissimilar to the one that did for South Africa in that most famous of all their victories over a tier-one nation. Then they followed it up with a distinctly more Japanese affair, an off-loading, side-stepping nightmare for Ireland ending with a try disallowed, the final pass from Tamura to Timothy Lafaele deemed marginally forward.
As pleasing was the way Ireland seemed inspired by it all, off-loading their way to a try by Stuart McCloskey in the corner. But there was no denying Lafaele when he went over just before the break.
Tamura’s chip kicks were causing havoc. This one released Siosaia Fifita, who combined with Lafaele to bewildering effect down the left for a 17-12 lead.
A mistake by Kotaro Matsushima on the stroke of half-time afforded Ireland one last play before the break, which they exploited to full effect, Finlay Bealham driven over.
Both sides scored two tries in the third quarter, Ireland’s exhibitions of power sandwiched by tries of yet more breathtaking switches and invention from Japan. Alas, the exhibition petered out in the final quarter, but the fate of Japan to be welcomed into the august ranks of tier one seems set.
It helps they are powered by one of the largest economies in the world so how poignant it was to see names such as Fifita and Amanaki Mafi among their top performers, then to peruse the scorecard from Auckland. Will Jordan, the Crusaders wing, scored five of New Zealand’s 16 unanswered tries, Brad Weber three, in that ugly scoreline.
The Tonga lineage is responsible for some of the greatest players in history, but the hopelessness of so tiny a collection of islands against bigger nations is a subject well philosophised over in rugby’s great quest to deepen its pool of contenders. One thing is for sure, such mismatches do nothing to further development. Much of the damage was done when the tier-one cabal initiated the policy of “player capture” in 2000, whereby someone capped by a nation at a certain level was unable to play for any other. The case for that punitive policy to be reversed only grew with every try in Auckland.
Another mismatch unfolded, meanwhile, in Cardiff. A young Wales team suffered a horrible start against the visiting Canadians, who recently welcomed Rob Howley to their coaching panel. Leigh Halfpenny, on his 100th cap, suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury in the first minute, before Canada scored the opening try in the fifth. A beauty it was too, worthy of Japan. But the Welsh scored six of their subsequent nine tries by half-time to run out 68-12 winners.