By Padraic Halpin
KOBE, Japan (Reuters) – Returning flyhalf Johnny Sexton reckons it may be a blessing in disguise that Ireland’s World Cup slipup came in the pool stages as they chase a bonus point win over Russia on Thursday.
The Six Nations champions for three of the past six years were humbled by Japan on Saturday but will be assured of a last eight spot with bonus-point wins over Russia and Samoa, and could still top Pool A if the hosts slip up in their games.
Ireland face the added difficulty of five days preparation and the increased humidity in Kobe but there can be no excuses against a team ranked 20th in the world who they beat 62-12 in their only other World Cup meeting eight years ago.
“If it wasn’t us that lost to them, I’d say, ‘wow, that’s fantastic for the tournament,’ isn’t it,” Ireland coach Joe Schimdt told a news conference on Tuesday, reflecting on the impact the loss to Japan has had on the tournament.
“It’s great for our pool, if you’re an independent observer.”
Sexton, who was not risked against Japan due to the minor thigh strain picked up in opening win over Scotland, may well have been allowed to cruise through to the quarter-finals had things gone according to plan but the captain for the day’s experience is now vital to steady the ship.
After naming an unchanged pack against Japan, seven Irish forwards will start their first game of the tournament while Schmidt also made four changes to a backline that will have to cope with the sticky and humid conditions under the roof at the Kobe Misaki Stadium to run in at least four tries.
Anticipating Sexton’s inclusion and that a bruised Ireland will come at them hard, Russia coach Lyn Jones made nine changes of his own from the side that shipped six tries to Samoa in an even tougher four-day turnaround last week.
Six of those changes come in the pack which Jones said was aimed at putting pressure on the Irish in the way his tired men could not against Samoa after they did just that against Japan when they caused the hosts some problems in their opening loss.
“We are facing probably the toughest challenge that Russian rugby has ever faced. We take on one of the best teams in the world, Ireland. The challenge is huge,” Jones said.
“We understand what tier-one teams are doing when they play tier-two sides, and the challenge for us is to make sure that we make life as difficult for Ireland and to score as many tries as we can.”
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)