Paula Fitzpatrick rose from the bench to keep Ireland’s World Cup dreams alive – but the host nation didn’t make it easy for themselves, requiring a stirring second-half recovery to sink Japan at the UCD Bowl.
The Sakura 15 had been hammered in their Pool C opener by France but they made life incredibly awkward for Tom Tierney’s team, taking a deserved 14-0 lead into the half-time break.
A much-changed Irish line-up looked disjointed and nervous, before tries from Alison Miller and Fitzpatrick on the turnaround dragged them level.
Nora Stapleton booted over a penalty seven minutes from time to nudge them ahead and Fitzpatrick’s second try at the death, again converted by Stapleton, added gloss to the scoreline.
Ireland as gutsy as they were flawed, march on to a showdown with France.
The UCD ground fizzed with noise and colour ahead of kick-off.
Japan were mauled on the Billings Field pitch last Wednesday any hope of a similar meltdown soon dissipated.
Ireland hoarded the early possession, going through the phases before it opened up for Stapleton to send a terrific kick to the left corner, pinning Japan back on their own ten-metre line.
A screwed clearance from Mayu Shimizu coughed up a lineout opportunity but sloppy execution halted momentum again.
Miller’s break off quick Claire Molloy ball had the partisan crowd on their feet but she was swallowed up by three Japanese players before knocking on on the ground.
Unforced errors crept in to a nervy Irish opening and Japan started to show their teeth. On 18 minutes, a sharp line-break from Eriko Horano left Ireland exposed.
She was taken out by Mairead Coyne with what looked like a high tackle – the TMO later ruled it to be a penalty and no more – but it was symptomatic of the underdogs’ growing belief.
They came into this without powerful No 8 Mateitoga Bogidraumainadave, who fractured her leg against the French, and with centre Makiko Tomita suspended for a red card received after a dangerous tackle on Carla Neisen, but they were loaded with aggression and bite in the first half.
Coyne almost got caught out trying a clever chip when carrying out from her own 22 and then coughed up a scrum when spilling under a high ball. From that came the first major warning.
Ireland were caught narrow, and only a forward pass denied Japan, though Honoka Tsutsumi fumbled the ball with the line at her mercy.
It was a short reprieve. On 26 minutes the host nation caved. Incessant pressure eventually led to a scrum under the posts and a penalty try that had Irish heads hanging.
Nerves were frayed. Coyne completely misjudged a dropping ball under no pressure, letting it slip through her hands, and the Japanese continued to boss at scrum-time.
On 33 minutes, Spence’s high tackle – Ireland’s fourth of the game up to that point – gave up a penalty that Japan kicked to the corner.
A clever kick over the top was almost grounded by Iroha Nagata but Ireland couldn’t escape from the vice-like grip and three minutes before the break, following phase after phase of pressure, Mayu Shimizu’s brilliant jinking run through two tackles ended in a second try. She added the extras.
14-0 down at half-time, Ireland were staring down a barrel. Fitzhenry’s yellow card two minutes into the second half after another high tackle further deflated the atmosphere.
Ireland needed inspiration; Miller provided it. Her chargedown allowed a swarm of green to pour into the opposing 22. Fitzpatrick, on for Ashleigh Baxter, followed it up with another block and when Miller was fed on the left she showed a cool head and dancing feet to burrow over.
Stapleton split the posts with the conversion and belief surged through the home support once more.
It seemed that would spark an all-out assault from Ireland but that failed to materialise. Japan wrestled back the initiative, their tenacity at the breakdown pummelling Ireland into submission.
Only frantic defending prevented the Japanese from going over again, with Sene Naoupu executing a crucial, thumping tackle with her heels touching the paint of the try-line. It proved a turning point.
On 63 minutes the Irish pack flexed their muscles to devastating effect.
They worked a rolling maul off a lineout - won off a brilliant Molloy tackle that earned a penalty - and Fitzpatrick stretched out a paw to dot down. Stapleton obliged off the tee and suddenly energy seared through the players in green.
Spence, then Naoupu softened the Japanese defence with purposeful, powerful carries. For the first time all evening Japan found themselves under sustained, breathless pressure. Eventually, they crumbled, giving up a penalty 25 metres out. Stapleton delivered.
As they did against Australia, Ireland showed nous and character to hold on to their hard-earned lead for dear life.
Japan fluffed a lineout in Irish territory and Tierney’s charges made hay. They went through the phases, running down the clock while eating up yards. Their patience rewarded as Fitzpatrick dove over for her second try and Stapleton again added the extras.
Another Dublin showdown with the French looms for Ireland. It won’t be for the faint-hearted.
Article originally appeared on RTE.ie