By Ian Ransom
FUKUOKA, Japan (Reuters) – The uncertainties whipped up by Typhoon Hagibis have proved an unwelcome distraction for Ireland at the World Cup and they will be hoping their full focus returns in time for the crunch pool match against Samoa on Saturday.
Ireland need a bonus point win against the Samoans in Fukuoka to be sure of a quarter-final spot but their final resting place in Pool A may be taken out of their hands.
The Scotland-Japan game in Yokohama on Sunday is under threat from the super typhoon and if cancelled — like two other pool matches that were scheduled on Saturday — Ireland’s best hope will be finishing runners-up in the group behind the hosts.
While that would still ensure quarter-final action, Joe Schmidt’s team would end up facing the defending champions New Zealand rather than the potentially more attractive prospect of Pool B runners-up South Africa.
Schmidt said the players’ minds had naturally wandered after World Rugby confirmed the seriousness of the typhoon on Thursday by calling off the France-England and New Zealand-Italy pool matches.
“Any time there is something up in the air and something is unknown… you get players who are going to talk about that,” Schmidt told reporters.
“But we’ve got to make sure, as I said, that our game gets finished with the right result for us. I’m sure the Samoans are coming out to make sure that’s as difficult for us as possible.”
In the southwestern island of Kyushu, Fukuoka is far from the expected trajectory of the typhoon, giving Ireland a chance to find form against the already eliminated Samoans before the knockout rounds.
Since thrashing Scotland 27-3 in their opening pool match, Ireland have had a surprisingly poor World Cup as one of the pre-tournament favourites.
They were convincingly beaten 19-12 by hosts Japan in the biggest shock of this World Cup and few of their fans were impressed with the 35-0 win over Russia in their last start.
However, with a nine-day break between matches, they have had plenty of time to fix problems and rest bodies.
While one bonus point from a loss would be enough to reach the last eight, Schmidt has fielded a strong side for their first World Cup clash against Samoa and first test against them since Ireland’s 40-9 win in Dublin in 2013.
Centre Robbie Henshaw will play his first World Cup match in Japan after recovering from a hamstring strain and has been thrown straight into the centres with Bundee Aki, one of 11 changes to the starting side against Russia.
The match will be special for Aki, who was born in New Zealand to Samoan parents but joined Irish side Connacht in 2014 and qualified for Ireland on residency.
Samoa, beaten 38-19 by Japan in their last pool clash, will be desperate to beat a tier one nation, having seen Tonga push France to the wall and Fiji give Wales a fright on Wednesday.
“What better opportunity to finish the World Cup?” Samoa coach Steve Jackson said. “Knowing that we’re on an airplane on Monday, going home, to have a scalp like that would be great.”
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Ken Ferris)