Ireland has had some good times recently, arriving at the Rugby World Cup as the top-ranked team in the world — the first time the Irish have been No. 1 — and dispatching Six Nations rival Scotland clinically 27-3 in its opening game.
That was all upended Saturday night by an unexpected loss to host Japan. The Irish squad arrived in Kobe on Sunday for its next game with a rugby hangover. The subdued fans who followed the team on the Hikari bullet train carried the real hangovers, they said. But sore heads emanating from a night of consolatory consumption, not the usual Irish festivity.
Ireland's loss puts all sorts of things into the players' heads. A quarterfinal place is not assured, let alone a first Rugby World Cup title, which Ireland had dared to consider. Qualifying second in Pool A is on the table now, as is missing out completely. But second spot would almost certainly result in a quarterfinal against defending champion New Zealand, which took its top-ranking back from Ireland after the first weekend of games in Japan.
That match that early in the knockout rounds wasn't part of the Irish plan. Also, there's a hefty list of casualties, players who are hurting physically as well as emotionally. Asked for an injury update, Ireland forwards coach Simon Easterby said on Sunday: "There's a few."
No. 8 Jack Conan is going home because of a broken left foot sustained in a hapless training accident before the Japan game when a teammate stood on it. More sore heads, too. Center Chris Farrell is out of Thursday's game against Russia with a confirmed concussion suffered in Shizuoka. Fullback Rob Kearney and Tadhg Furlong also have head knocks, but Ireland thinks the pair should recover for Russia.
Also available for selection again is flyhalf Johnny Sexton after he missed the Japan game because he didn't have enough time to recover from a thigh problem. Sexton, Ireland's most important playmaker, said he was over his injury before the Japan game but couldn't fit in enough training sessions to prove he was 100%. He watched the Shocker in Shizuoka from the stands, helpless.
"Just frustrated that I wasn't on the pitch and that I couldn't help the lads out," Sexton said. "And obviously things didn't go our way and you want to have things in your control. When you're sitting in the stands there's not much you can do about it."
Underlining the gloom, Sexton couldn't even bring himself to concede that, from a neutral perspective, the result in Shizuoka was a fabulous boost for the first Rugby World Cup in Asia. He pondered it for a second, then shook his head. No. He just couldn't do it.
The Irish, Sexton said, had a team meeting Sunday morning and had already reviewed and analyzed the game and their mistakes. The squad wouldn't normally do that so soon after the game, Sexton said. Again, plans change.
"We found we needed to sit down and talk about a few things," Sexton said. He also put forward the theory that the short gap between the Japan and Russia games, which puts a physical strain on players, was actually good. Good because there's a chance to quickly put things right.
There's been severe recrimination back home. One newspaper analysis suggested it might be Ireland's worst sporting loss ever. The same column said Ireland was now heading toward "inevitable quarterfinal defeat" against the All Blacks, and coach Joe Schmidt was a "zombie manager" — as in a dead man walking — because he's already said he will leave the job after the Rugby World Cup.
Sexton backed his coach and his teammates. "The guys want to get back onto the pitch as soon as possible," he said. "We're going to take the hurt into this week a little bit."
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