Tyrone Howe: Ireland have more bite as underdogs
Almost exactly six months ago, Ireland pulled off an unlikely but intoxicating win over England in the Six Nations Championship.
On that day, England never got a sniff, and never looked like they were ever going to.
On Saturday, Brian O’Driscoll and his men conjured up a carbon-copy performance and thereby created their own little bit of World Cup rugby history.
The RWC organisers must feel utterly indebted to the Irish players.
The tournament needed a shock result and the one they got has made the tournament explode into life.
Those who might have been looking on with mild interest have now been jolted into renewed enthusiasm and intense speculation.
The reason is that the potential permutations of the knock-out stages have been transformed. The draw now looks like it will contain two distinct halves — Northern Hemisphere versus Southern Hemisphere shoot-out.
While Ireland’s achievement heightens our own optimism and expectation, it also gives hope to France, England and especially Wales, who should end up being Ireland’s quarter-final opponents.
One also wonders whether a potential meeting with either Australia or South Africa in the semi-finals might eat further into the New Zealand psyche.
Australia were stung before kick-off with the withdrawal of starting hooker, Stephen Moore, and flanker, David Pocock. Even with superstars like Will Genia and Quade Cooper in their ranks, it is a truism that forwards still lay the platform for victory.
Pocock was a massive loss and his ability to carry the ball and create turnovers left Australia bereft of their best player. While Australian supporters might be tempted to give a few ‘Ah, buts’, Ireland took full advantage.
The front row performed heroically with the scrum a dominant feature, while the backrow was simply immense.
Ironically, David Wallace’s injury has made first choice selection straightforward, and we got an 80 minute glimpse at what was, until now, a theoretical dream scenario. The reality of O’Brien, Heaslip and Ferris, all on form, was as good, if not better, than we had imagined.
Two other factors combined to create the conditions for a ‘perfect storm’ scenario.
Firstly, the weather was dreadful, and Ireland’s set-piece which had performed well against the USA knew what it needed to do. Secondly, the New Zealand mantra of ‘Anyone but Australia’ guaranteed that every Kiwi became an Irishman for a day.
While everyone played his part, the pack laid the foundation. It was the same intensely physical, deeply emotional effort of that Six Nations afternoon.
Never mind the fact that Ireland still has enormous difficulty in scoring tries, when you play with that much ferocity and heart, you don’t necessarily have to.
Ireland shocked the life out of Australia so much that the rapier-like thrust of their attack was completely blunted.
Are we reverting back to our stereotype — playing best as underdogs, low on expectation with emotion as the catalyst for performance? The two biggest performances of the year suggest that this might be a plausible suggestion.
Such is the experience and pride of the senior players, Ireland are capable of something special, but it only happens when those senior players seem to be staring down the barrel of a gun on the biggest of occasions.
While we, supporters, expect more of the same, this is the biggest challenge for Ireland as they go forward. It is difficult to summon up that amount of emotion repeatedly, because it drains the well dry. Hopefully, the next two games can be managed with pragmatic, no-nonsense victories, by which time the well will be replenished ready for the quarter-final.
The critics who have questioned the ability of this team have not been silenced. There have been far too many indifferent performances to ensure that this is the case, but we can surely allow ourselves some time to savour this moment. Well, a week anyway.
Above all, I feel delighted for Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell. They are two players who have sacrificed their bodies repeatedly for province and country. Heineken Cups, Triple Crowns, a Grand Slam and Lions Tests are incredible achievements to have on a rugby CV, but they crave World Cup recognition.
While this performance goes some way to achieving that goal, they know that there is much rugby still to be played. The result has given them a chance.
It has created the opportunity, and the next few weeks will prove whether they have further performances in the bank to spur them on to even greater things.