FUKUROI CITY, Japan (Reuters) - The Rugby World Cup exploded into life on Saturday as Japan stunned Ireland 19-12 in an extraordinary upset that handed the exuberant hosts the result they had dreamed of and allowed their fans to embrace the first tournament ever staged on Asian soil.
In contrast to their victory over twice-champions South Africa which shocked world rugby at the last tournament, this win offers Japan a clearer path towards a first quarter-final appearance which would help sustain the tournament into the knockout stages.
The Brave Blossoms came from behind at Shizuoka Stadium thanks to a fearless kicking display from flyhalf Yu Tamura and a second-half try from winger Kenki Fukuoka, whose name only appeared among the replacements an hour before kickoff after a late injury.
Richly deserved winners over a shellshocked Ireland side recently ranked number one in the world, Japan’s players hugged as Angus Gardner blew the final whistle and celebrated in front of the wild 47,813 fans as fireworks lit up the Shizuoka sky.
“With 50,000 fans, 40,000 in red jerseys, it makes you really proud,” coach Jamie Joseph told a news conference, as the local media matched the Irish fans dotted around the stadium in applauding his side’s phenomenal performance.
“The Irish team is a quality rugby side but we’ve been preparing for this game a hell of a lot longer than they have. We thought we had a bit of an advantage in that and we just executed our plan.”
Ireland led 12-3 thanks to two early tries from Rob Kearney and Garry Ringrose but were ultimately made to look a shadow of the team that ploughed through Scotland six days ago, leaving coach Joe Schmidt’s World Cup plans in jeopardy.
Left clinging on to what may prove a crucial losing bonus point, Ireland, however, are still well-placed to qualify and could still top Pool A if Japan fail to beat Scotland but their hopes of reaching a first semi-final look a lot less credible.
“We played well in the first quarter and then we stopped playing,” a rueful Schmidt said, insisting that the Japanese had not exceeded his expectations but, unfortunately, merely met them.
“The strength of the team will be how they respond and how they rebound from this,” he added.
The hosts, who had never beaten Ireland before, admitted that their nerves got the better of them in the uneven 30-10 curtain-raising win over Russia and they duly came flying out of the blocks against the Johnny Sexton-less Irish.
Ireland’s gameplan of attacking off the kind of forward pressure that smashed the Scots and testing the Japanese with third-choice flyhalf Jack Carty’s clever array of kicks paid dividends, with Ringrose and Kearney claiming first-quarter tries.
Tamura knocked over a penalty in between and Japan already looked like they had Ireland in their sights by the time he cut the deficit again with a second penalty.
With five minutes to go to the break the Irish threatened again, for what would prove to be the final meaningful time of the game, with an attacking scrum against their lighter opponents.
The Japanese pack, however, responded with an extraordinary effort, destroying a full-strength Irish eight unchanged from the Scottish game at the put-in and driving them backwards before winning a penalty.
The crowd rose, producing a huge roar which was matched by the players, prop Jiwon Koo and hooker Shota Horie screaming at the top of their voices. A potential 19-6 Irish halftime lead turned into just a 12-9 advantage as an exhausted-looking Irish defence looked happy to hear the halftime whistle.
Japan, who had never got within 16 points in seven previous defeats to Ireland, were back at it after the break with more high-tempo attacking play and Ireland were hanging on as their penalty count inched up.
Utterly undone, Schmidt’s men were making uncharacteristic simple errors and Fukuoka, a last-minute addition to the bench after an injury to Will Tupou, sensationally gave Japan the lead with 20 minutes to go and Tamura slotted over his most difficult kick of the night to make it 16-12.
Ireland simply had no answer to the relentless Japanese defence, led by lock James Moore who made 23 tackles without missing one.
With the home fans getting louder and louder, Tamura extended the lead to seven points eight minutes from time and there was no hanging back for Japan as they finished the game deep in the Irish half to reach an all-time high of eighth in the world rankings.
“Thank you for today!” Japan hooker Shota Horie said to the crowd after being named man of the match. “Thanks to your cheers, I was able to run to the last centimetre, the last millimetre.
Additional reporting by Nick Mulvenney, Jack Tarrant, Chris Gallagher and Yoko Kono, editing by Sudipto Ganguly and Tony Lawrence