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Rugby World Cup: Statement of intent as Ireland throw down gauntlet

By Tony Ward

Published 13/10/2015

Outstanding: Iain Henderson was in great form against Italy
Outstanding: Iain Henderson was in great form against Italy

Beating Australia in Auckland four years ago ranks as the most significant victory in our rugby history. Forget Grand Slams, Triple Crowns and Five/Six Nations Championships, the World Cup is the one true barometer of consequence.

On Sunday in Cardiff, Joe Schmidt's Ireland produced a near complete show to rank alongside that win over the Wallabies in 2011. In terms of delivering from 1-23, this was the in-depth, impact-laden performance to which Schmidt has aspired since taking control.

I am not suggesting for a minute that it was perfection and we are not easy on the eye to the casual observer, but we are effective and work for everything we get. The one thing we were guaranteed ahead of the Pool D shoot-out was an Irish deliverance from the heart. If we weren't good enough then so be it, but in terms of honest-to-God hard graft and physical intensity, nothing was be left behind.

The only question surrounded the French. Surely they couldn't be as limited as they have appeared in recent times and most particularly since that World Cup final they should never have lost four years ago?

Toulon may be dominating European rugby at domestic level but it is Les Bleus paying the price.

it is sad to see where the game in France has drifted - it is even sadder that it is by design and not by accident. Take out the brutishness and front foot physicality and they look what they now are - the counter attacking emperors without any clothes. They will resurrect and reinvent but not anytime soon and most definitely not against the All Blacks in the same stadium in four days' time.

Winning rugby is much like beauty being in the eye of the beholder. I wish Ireland were more adventurous at times but, equally, when you see a team in any sporting code cut its cloth to that winning end you can't but admire and respect how they go about their business. Yet again on Sunday we were the epitome of selflessness. We were back to that one-for-all, all-for-one core philosophy.

What we witnessed for the full 80 minutes was that simple but pragmatic game plan with heads and hearts working in tandem. Our line speed in defence was back where it needed to be as was the aerial bombardment and kick-chase so central to our suffocation tactics. More than anything we had leaders everywhere. To that, add the impact bench we have been steadily assembling in the build up to this ultra-attritional campaign. Given the fall-out from Sunday, our back-up is going to be tested even more in the coming days and (hopefully) weeks.

We know the quality and leadership of the more experienced heads like Rob Kearney, Johnny Sexton and Paul O'Connell among others but, irrespective of caps won, Robbie Henshaw, Devin Toner, Iain Henderson and Ian Madigan really came of age.

Keith Earls mixed the bad with the good but as a combination (with the jury still out) they managed to get the better of Mathieu Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana which, in itself, speaks volumes from a French perspective. O'Brien was a deserving Man of the Match although the punch to Pascal Pape's gut will cost him and us dearly. Suspension is inevitable and while the defence will centre on retaliation at being held back he was wrong.

In truth, from Cian Healy to Luke Fitzgerald we dominated but the roles played by Madigan and Henderson, given the talismanic figures they replaced, should not be under stated in the least. Both were absolutely outstanding with the interchange seamless.

Whether it will be enough to take us into virgin territory and beyond Sunday next only time will tell. No medals were handed out on the back of Sunday's comprehensive win. We all felt there would be little more than a kick of a ball between the sides. In truth there was a chasm in organisation and execution. Save for a short period in the final quarter when they closed the gap to five we were in overall control.

I think I can recall just one clean break (by Freddie Michalak) which came to nothing through lack of support. When we did unveil a pre-rehearsed gem from the locker Earls could and should have finished it with a five- or seven-pointer at a crucial stage in the contest.

As it is, a 15-point differential is massive and with it comes a statement of Irish intent. I still feel the odds quoted at 9/1 are just about right. Our medical team under Eanna Falvey will hopefully work their magic and if we can get a judicial rub of the green for the Tank (although we won't be holding our breath) as another warrior from down that neck of the woods, Willie Duggan, might say: "We're suckin' diesel."

Belfast Telegraph

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