Ruthless Ireland march on
So who said the Celtic Tiger had lost its roar? Ireland and Wales set up the mother of all Celtic clashes in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals in Wellington next Saturday morning with supreme performances in their final pool games.
If Wales believed they had laid down a marker with their 66-0 demolition of the hapless Fijians in Hamilton, then Ireland more than matched that performance with their own five-star showing in Dunedin.
With perfect geographical symmetry, the two sides will now travel to Wellington for a collision that promises to be seismic.
Ireland must know they face a huge barrier to their ambition of reaching a World Cup semi-final for the first time in their history.
Wales are in prime form, their side a well balanced mix of power, pace and creativity, not to mention no little class.
The reunion of those great 2009 Lions team-mates, Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts, will inevitably hog the headlines of a clash to savour. But if Irish fans were justifiably nervous of confronting so good a Welsh team before they started their final pool game in Dunedin, then 80 minutes later they must have felt ‘Bring them on’.
This was one of Ireland’s best displays for years.
The Italians were sent packing with a brutal, clinical efficiency that has by no means always been an Irish trademark in recent times.
But from the start in Dunedin, there was a purpose and sense of business-like efficiency about Ireland’s game that bode ill for the Italians.
It was a sweet and sour, spicy affair. Blows were traded, Cian Healy (left) was eye-gouged, tackles were made with decapitation uppermost in these warriors’ minds and the players of both teams must have finished black and blue.
But the great triumph of Brian O’Driscoll’s side was that they more than matched the requirements of the immense physical battle before emerging triumphant to let their rugby do the talking. And once it came down to a matter of rugby quality, there was only one team to consider.
Ireland not only put such a pace and intensity on their game, they all but eliminated the frustrating, nagging errors that have so often bedevilled their efforts. Too often in the past, daft mistakes have ruined momentum, broken up the intended flow.
But this was an 80 minute performance that had total focus and concentration as its bedrock. The only possible criticism of Ireland you could make on the night was that they made a mess of three re-starts, an area of traditional muddle for them.
But that apart, what they produced on a stirring, pulsating night in New Zealand’s far south was close to flawless. Italy were ruthlessly shut out, especially once they were unfortunate enough to lose key tight-head prop Martin Castrogiovanni from their scrum after only 34 minutes.
His injury forced Italy to play the rest of the game with two loose-heads and Ireland exacted a terrible revenge. It was fiery from the start and never let up in that regard, with Healy at the forefront of the battle.
But as O’Driscoll said afterwards, you have to earn the right to play your rugby by gaining supremacy in the forward battle and Ireland did that superbly. None did better than Sean O’Brien, a worthy man of the match although Stephen Ferris was never far behind him.
Playing technically impressive rugby in every phase, Ireland simply overran their foes in a fantastic second half.
Increasingly, this Irish side is resembling a team of all the talents — physical, skillful, fast and furious with precision of execution. It was outstanding stuff.