SHIZUOKA (REUTERS, AFP) - Hosts Japan stunned world No. 2 Ireland 19-12 in an extraordinary upset on Saturday (Sept 28) to win their second match of the Rugby World Cup and give themselves a strong chance of reaching the knockout stages for the first time.
The Brave Blossoms came from behind at Shizuoka Stadium to beat a side recently ranked No. 1 in the world in a shock to match their victory over twice world champions South Africa at the 2015 World Cup.
Early tries by Garry Ringrose and Rob Kearney and a conversion by Jack Carty were not enough as Kenki Fukuoka try in the 58th minute and Yu Tamura's conversion and four penalties gave them another famous win.
Japan coach Jamie Joseph, who could not suppress a beaming smile throughout his post-match news conference, said his players were more prepared than their opponents.
“The Irish team is a quality rugby side but we have been preparing for this game for a hell of a lot longer than the Irish have,” said Joseph, who was installed as boss in 2016.
“We have been focusing on today for basically... well the last year at least but probably sub-consciously for the last three years and Ireland have been thinking about it since Monday.
“So we probably had an advantage in that so we just had to execute properly.”
Ireland, who thrashed Scotland 27-3 in their opening Pool A game, had looked in control after tries in the 13th and 20th minutes, the second being converted.
But they went off the boil as Japan grew into the match, roared on by a partisan crowd of 47,000. Fukuoka made the difference, wriggling over on the overlap to complete a stunning team try and put the home side in front - where they stayed, leaving Ireland's players slumped on the turf in disbelief.
Kotaro Matsushima, hat-trick hero of Japan's 30-10 win over minnows Russia in last week's tournament curtain-raiser, posed an early threat on as Japan edged a cagey opening.
Fly-half Tamura fluffed a makeable penalty, before Ireland took the lead when the rampaging Ringrose rose brilliantly to snaffle Carty's hanging kick into the corner.
Carty, stepping in for Ireland's talismanic playmaker Johnny Sexton, produced another moment of magic seven minutes later, dinking a clever chip that he managed to tip back to full-back Kearney to crash over.
Japan refused to buckle, however, and Tamura kept them in it with three clutch penalties.
Regular captain Michael Leitch's introduction after half an hour provided an instant impact, but Ireland survived to go into half-time up 12-9.
Tamura missed a three-pointer 14 minutes after the interval that would have tied the game. But Japan's swarming pressure soon told, Fukuoka showing superb footwork to sneak over and give Japan the lead, triggering deafening cheers at Ecopa stadium.
Another Tamura penalty extended Japan's advantage to 19-12 with eight minutes remaining before Fukuoka effectively sealed the result with another tremendous burst that kept the ball in Irish territory until the final gong.
Ireland captain Rory Best said his team were not surprised how tough the game was. “Anyone that is utterly shocked hasn’t seen how good they are,” the hooker said.
“We were on the wrong side of the penalty count. But Japan played really, really well. They posed a lot of questions to us and unfortunately we couldn’t come up with the right answers.”
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt said he was “incredibly disappointed that we didn’t manage to control the end of the game but they are a tremendous side, they did really well”.
Ireland, who drop to world No. 4 and have never won a World Cup knockout match, will look to bounce back against Russia.
Japan, whose target is a first-ever place in the last eight, know they still have no margin for error with games against Samoa and Scotland to come. Their ranking will rise from 10th to eighth.