Japan’s women had threatened to produce an upset every bit as big as their male counterparts at the last Rugby World Cup as they led 14-0 at half-time after a penalty try and one from Mayu Shimizu.
But resilient Ireland bounced back, as they did against Australia in round one, with Fitzpatrick and her fellow replacements making a big impact from the bench.
With 17-year-old scrum-half Moe Tsukui firing out lightning-quick passes, the Sakura 15 backs looked dangerous every time they touched the ball but their first score, after a frenetic 25 minutes of high-tempo rugby, came from the outstanding work of the forwards.
The physically smaller Japan pack showed superb technique to shunt the Ireland eight backwards when given the put-in at an attacking scrum and referee Ian Tempest had no hesitation in awarding them a penalty try.
Outside-centre Iroha Nagata nearly latched onto a grubber kick into the in-goal area as Japan continued to look the more dangerous of the two sides, but it wasn’t long before the Asian champions doubled their lead when Shimizu supplied a neat finish from a first phase move and then converted her own try.
Things got worse for Ireland at the start of the second half when a fourth high tackle resulted in a yellow card for Katie Fitzhenry. However, with Ireland now much more effective at the breakdown, Japan were unable to capitalise on their numerical advantage and it was the hosts who scored next through the excellent Alison Miller.
With Japan having had two kicks charged down near their own line, the first by Miller, the pressure was beginning to mount as they defended wave after wave of pick-and-goes. Eventually, Ireland decided to give the ball some air and found Miller, who had come off her wing looking for more work. The hero of the famous womens rugby world cup 2014 win over New Zealand cut back inside the drift defence to dot down to the relief of the partisan crowd with Nora Stapleton adding the conversion.
Japan set about restoring their 14-point cushion but superb breakdown work by tireless captain Claire Molloy and replacement Ailis Egan starved them of the quick ruck ball they enjoyed in the first half.
By now all the momentum was with Ireland and Japan were powerless to stop Fitzpatrick rumbling over from a powerful rolling maul and Stapleton’s second conversion put the hosts back on level terms with 64 minutes gone.
Stapleton then coolly slotted a 72nd-minute penalty to hand Tom Tierney’s side the lead for the first time in the game before Fitzpatrick grabbed her second from close range with the clock in red after the hosts had kept hold of the ball for over 30 phases to deny Japan a deserved losing bonus point.
Ireland coach Tom Tierney: “There are no excuses for our first half performance in particular and we simply didn’t play well. But we won and we’re mightily relieved. There was a lot of pressure on us, so to score 24 points in the second half was a credit to the players. We’ll dust ourselves off and we’ll put a plan in place to go at the French. Next Thursday will be a cup final but we know we have a lot of work to do if we are to be competitive.”
Ireland captain Claire Molloy: “They threw everything at us in the first half and their passing game was excellent and as a result they won the first half. But it was a new game in the second half. We came out and showed great resilience yet again and got the result. The bench really made an impact and galvanised us when we found ourselves in a backs-to-the-wall situation again.”
Japan coach Goshi Arimizu: “It was a better performance than the France game, however, we had prepared well for Ireland and we truly believed we were capable of winning, so the result was a disappointment. In the end, the Irish will to win was greater than ours and we didn’t have the right sort of mental strength to see us through.”
Photo Creidt: INPHO/Bryan Keane
Photo Credit: JRFU