Rugby World Cup: Ireland boss Joe Schmidt ready for a step up in class
Ireland boss Joe Schmidt declared that his side's World Cup starts now after they claimed a convincing bonus-point victory over Romania yesterday.
The 44-10 win at Wembley sees Ireland move to the top of Pool D but their progress to the quarter-finals will depend on tougher tests against both France and, more immediately, Italy next Sunday.
Ireland can guarantee qualification to the knock-out stages if they beat the Italians at the Olympic Stadium but it will be important to finish first too, given reigning champions New Zealand could lie in wait for the runners-up.
"Next week is the pivotal week," Schmidt said.
"It's where we can qualify ourselves. The game against France just decides who we play in the quarter-final if we can win next week.
"It's pressure for us and pressure for Italy. That's why people come to a World Cup - they want to see how teams respond to the pressure cooker environment.
"We know we can qualify if we win next weekend. Italy, after a win and a loss, need to win next weekend to qualify. It becomes a last-16 game for us."
Ireland are sweating on the fitness of Rob Kearney for the match against the Italians after he injured himself scoring the fifth try shortly after coming on as a substitute.
"Rob was involved in a high-speed play after coming on the pitch and just after scoring the try he's jarred himself," Schmidt said.
"We hope it's not too much but the next 24 to 48 hours will show if he's done anything telling for next week.
"It's through his glute and hip. It happened when his knee hit the ground."
Losing Kearney would be a blow for Ireland but a number of players put their hand up for selection after a dominant performance against Romania.
Schmidt made 12 changes with Italy and France in mind, but his altered line-up showed few signs of weakness, scoring six tries, including four in the second-half.
Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls crossed the line twice each, before Kearney and Chris Henry added two more late on, and Simon Zebo also staked a claim with an impressive display at full-back.
"There were a number of players who performed really well and will create a bit of a selection headache for Italy," Schmidt said.
"I don't think you're ever totally satisfied. We know we've been imperfect but it's a difficult thing to work through a couple of games where you're heavily favoured."
Earls' second try was his seventh at a World Cup, bringing him level with Brian O'Driscoll as Ireland's top scorer in the tournament's history.
"It's nice for him to be mentioned in the same sentence as Brian O'Driscoll," Schmidt said. "Because that's the standard that any Irish player in the backline wants to reach."
Earls' milestone came in front of 89,267 fans at Wembley, a record attendance at a Rugby World Cup, beating the 89,019 that watched New Zealand beat Argentina earlier in the tournament.
Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip said: "It's pretty empowering. You try to block a lot of it out during the game to be composed but their (fans) energy bleeds into the squad.
"When you're digging deep and you're blowing hard they do pick you up. The support has blown the squad away to be honest."
Romania managed a consolation try late on through Ovidiu Tonita but they were largely outclassed and head coach Lynn Howells is also targeting the remaining games against Canada, who they play next, and Italy for a victory.
"The first two games against France and Ireland, once we knew the draw, it was about competing and showing we can compete at this level," Howells said.
"I think we've managed that. Now as far as Romania are concerned, we're probably playing a semi-final and a final now."
There was one success for the Romanian squad as scrum-half Florin Surugiu proposed to his girlfriend on the Wembley pitch after the match.
"I tried to advise him not to, but there you go," Howells said.
"She said yes. It's too romantic for me but I'm sure she enjoyed every minute of it."