The dust is beginning to settle on one of Ireland’s most ruthless performances in recent years. We can draw breath and look ahead.
As we saw in England’s game against Scotland, knock-out matches between sides, who know each other incredibly well, invariably go down to the wire.
It is testimony to Ireland’s professionalism that their 80 minute match was over as a contest at the fifty minute mark.
You could see the green shirts in the crowd, you could hear ‘The Fields of Athenry’ — was it ever going to be any other team’s day?
When Martin Castrogiavanni left the pitch, the signs were ominous for Nick Mallett’s men.
The big South African may have talked his team up prior to the game, but Declan Kidney unleashed his nuclear arsenal of a backrow.
Every time Italy’s key prop and major ball-carrier got the ball, Ferris and O’Brien smashed him. It sent out a message, and that message was clear — we are not going to lose.
Last week I talked about how Ireland’s attack, if they could sort it out, would be crucial in putting Italy to the sword.
The angles were created, the space opened up, and players punctured these at full pace.
At times it was like rugby nirvana, as every single player seemed to hit form.
It was especially edifying to see Tommy Bowe in full flight and Gordon D’Arcy rolling back the years. Darce has endured some serious stick in the last few months, most of it justified, as his form has been pretty dire.
However, that old cliché about form being temporary but class permanent, certainly applied to him at the weekend.
He proved why Declan Kidney has stuck with him, pulling out a big performance when it mattered. I feel enormously pleased for him.
A word too for Ronan O’Gara. He really seems to be enjoying himself and deserves enormous credit for pushing himself back into number one position just when it matters.
ROG is thriving in the high pressure arena of World Cup rugby and playing as if his life depended on it. Like him or loathe him, he is a difficult man to shake off and he is fully justifying Kidney’s faith in him.
It was interesting that, following the warm-up games, ROG said that he himself had little idea of what Ireland would produce.
How could we know, then, if even the most senior players didn’t?
However, it was this most recent game that we have fully seen Ireland rediscover their mojo, the little touches that make their game not only competitive, intense but hugely effective.
There seems to be a fusion of power between young and old.
BOD, POC and ROG are all thriving and the younger players are stepping up when it matters.
I do reserve sympathy for Andrew Trimble. As a player, all you want is for a coach to pick on form. Trimble was one of the few that emerged from August with real credit.
His initial selection should have been a no-brainer, but having lost out in the big one against Australia, he has little chance of making a starting XV now.
Selection will surely be the same again, apart from the unfortunate Rory Best. Jerry Flannery handed the jerseys out before Ireland’s game against Australia.
It would not surprise me in the least if Best is asked to undertake that same duty this weekend prior to the quarter final game against Wales.
Ireland will miss him enormously but his own tough, uncompromising approach might just spur the players on to victory and give him the opportunity to reclaim his place in the semi-final.
In many ways, for both Ireland and Wales, this quarter final match might well be a bigger hurdle than the next round.
Whoever wins will surely fancy their chances against an ill-disciplined England or a confidence-ravaged France.
Warren Gatland’s men will test Ireland’s defence like no other team so far in the tournament, but the big question is whether they will win enough ball?
While last Sunday was about Ireland’s backs cutting their opposite numbers to pieces, this Saturday is about Ireland’s forwards being the biggest bullies in New Zealand. No nonsense, hard-nosed rugby.
I have utter faith that they are up for this.
What might make the biggest difference is the experience gleaned from Heineken Cup experiences.
Almost every Irish player has experienced victory in a cauldron of pressure. At key moments, this could count for a lot. Take a deep breath, the mother of all matches is about to take place