Ireland were teetering on the brink of a World Cup collapse when trailing 14-0 at the break but much-improved game management got Ireland over the line. But the performance in the first half was severely lacking as basic handling errors, set piece issues and defensive lapses left Tom Tierney’s side badly exposed, and Japan, who were 100/1 outsiders before kick-off, took advantage thanks to their own impressive organisation, structures, and accurate and clinical play.

Ireland mixed the good with the bad early on, building through 10 phases off new cap Nicole Cronin’s swift passes and Lindsay Peat leading the charge with a couple of powerful carries. Centre Fitzhenry also chased hard in pursuit of a clever Stapleton kick, however a miscued lineout and a subsequent knock-on by Peat released the pressure on Japan.

The Japanese succeeded in forcing a second lineout error from Ireland and won a scrum penalty shortly afterwards, their lighter pack gaining confidence as they thwarted the hosts’ early advances. Winger Miller was fed by Cronin in space on the left, but she was quickly closed down when she reached the 22.

Ireland, who made seven personnel changes from the Australia game, failed to build momentum from a Claire Molloy-won penalty at the breakdown, and also coughed up possession at a maul, before Mairead Coyne needed to make a vital cover tackle on the fast-breaking Eriko Hirano. The challenge was ruled high but the Japanese, opting for a scrum, were held at bay.

Ireland had a serious let-off when a forward pass saw Japan botch a try-scoring opportunity on the left wing, yet the scrum continued to be an area of real concern for the home side. Makoto Ebuchi got under Ciara O’Connor to drive her back – not once but twice – and the second close-in scrum, which saw Japan pile forward, produced a deserved penalty try and a seven-point lead for Goshi Arimizu’s charges.

Individual mistakes continued to blight Ireland’s play, with Stapleton knocking on and Sophie Spence guilty of a high tackle. Japan were invited forward again and after Coyne and Hannah Tyrrell made important tackles deep in their 22, influential out-half Minori Yamamoto, who was served very well by her 17-year-old half-back partner Moe Tsukui, almost teed up a try with a neat chip over the top.

Disappointingly for Ireland, that score arrived just a minute later when Shimizu produced a terrific finish to the right of the posts, bouncing off Miller’s tackle and stepping inside Fitzhenry to score – and she added the extras for good measure.

With Egan already on as a replacement for O’Connor at tighthead, head coach Tierney made three further changes at the break as Lyons and Ruth O’Reilly came into the front row and Louise Galvin – making her 15s international debut – replaced Coyne in the back-three.

The second period began on a frustrating note for Ireland as Fitzhenry was carded barely two minutes in, the Wexford native paying the price for the collective infringements in the opening half. The sin-bin period actually worked out in the hosts’ favour who conjured up a try for Miller.

Successive charge-downs from Miller and Fitzpatrick saw Ireland get right up into scoring range, and after the forwards had knocked on the door through the likes of Egan and Fitzpatrick, Miller managed to make her way over for a galvanising try. The left-sided conversion was lobbed over by Stapleton to half Japan’s lead to 14-7.

Ireland’s ability to get in at the breakdown and force penalties proved hugely important in turning the tide. Although there was excellent work in that area by Ciara Griffin, Molloy and Egan, Japan hurtled back with a storming set of attacking phases. Indeed, it took a brilliantly-timed tackle from Sene Naoupu, coupled with another Egan-won penalty on the deck, to break up their momentum approaching the hour mark.

Suddenly, Ireland were finding more holes in the Japanese defence. Terrific timing and positioning from captain Molloy forced a penalty at ruck time, and from the subsequent lineout in the 22, Lyons’ pinpoint throw set up a monster maul which saw Fitzpatrick plunge over for her first converted try of the night to leave the sides all square at 14-14.

As Japan appeared to tire from their increasing workload in defence, Ireland edged ahead in the 73rd minute thanks to a surefooted strike from the reliable Stapleton. The close range penalty – conceded by Yuki Sue – came on the back of a barnstorming 19 phases led by the forwards, with a big carry from lock Spence to start it off.

There was still time for Ireland to notch their sixth try of the tournament, the pack again digging deep for the hard yards with Molloy and Ciara Cooney both getting through a huge amount of work in and around the fringes.

Fitzpatrick spotted her chance to go for the line and she used her strength to scramble over just to the right of the posts. Stapleton’s conversion went over with the aid of the left hand upright, four more pool points in the bag but a huge amount for Ireland to work on ahead of the Pool C decider with France on Thursday, who put 48 points on Australia in their second came of the competition.

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TIME LINE: 28 minutes – Japan try: Penalty try – 0-5; conversion – 0-7; 38 mins – Japan try: Mayu Shimizu – 0-12; conversion: Mayu Shimizu – 0-14; Half-time – Ireland 0 Japan 14; 43 mins – Ireland yellow card: Katie Fitzhenry; 46 mins – Ireland try: Alison Miller – 5-14; conversion: Nora Stapleton – 7-14; 64 mins – Ireland try: Paula Fitzpatrick – 12-14; conversion: Nora Stapleton – 14-14; 73 mins – Ireland penalty: Nora Stapleton – 17-14; 80 mins – Ireland try: Paula Fitzpatrick – 22-14; conversion: Nora Stapleton – 24-14; Full-time – Ireland 24 Japan 14

Referee: Ian Tempest (England)