Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Rugby World Cup: Whole new ball game for Ireland

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - SEPTEMBER 17: Declan Kidney, coach of Ireland looks on during the IRB 2011 Rugby World Cup Pool C match between Australia and Ireland at Eden Park on September 17, 2011 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Ireland's Paul O'Connell celebrates after the IRB Rugby World Cup match at Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - SEPTEMBER 17: Kurtley Beale of the Wallabies tackles Brian O'Driscoll of Ireland during the IRB 2011 Rugby World Cup Pool C match between Australia and Ireland at Eden Park on September 17, 2011 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

With 10 minutes to go and Ireland having just gone nine points up, a Wallaby supporter rose to his feet in a desperate attempt to rouse the Australian crowd. “Aussie, Aussie Aussie?” he implored.

Nothing, not a peep, and he slumped back into his seat.

It was just another battle the Australians lost on an epic evening in Auckland. The green masses, Irishness accentuated by distance from home, created a fantastic atmosphere, swamping their gold-clad counterparts and, as Keith Earls noted afterwards, the ‘Ole Ole Ole' chants gave the occasion a distinct Italia '90 feel.

A big Irish performance was expected but few were prepared for the completeness of this display and the incredible levels of intensity, least of all the Aussies.

This was a monumental result, Ireland's best World Cup performance by a considerable distance and given the stage, the opposition and the consequences, the biggest result in Irish rugby history. For the moment.

It is also a result that has flipped the tournament upside-down, with the Wallabies now on course for a quarter-final against the Springboks before the winner faces the All Blacks in the semis, which means the ‘dream' New Zealand-Australia final will not take place. Shame that.

On the far side, the Six Nations teams, nostrils flaring, now smell a path to the final, with Ireland likely to face Wales in the quarters (the Welsh beat Samoa yesterday), with England or France providing the other semi-finalist.

Sanguine as ever, Declan Kidney wasn't complaining. “It's probably good for the World Cup. Let the Tri-Nations sort out one half and the Six Nations sort out the other half,” said the Ireland coach.

The sense of shock in the Aussie camp was palpable. This was not part of the plan for a side that had been on a high since claiming the Tri-Nations title, and the sight of their scrum being emasculated revived unsettling memories of Marseilles four years ago when England did a number on them and pushed them all the way home.

All the work Australia have done on their scrum since then was blown away by the technical excellence and sheer power of the Irish pack.

The tremendous Cian Healy got Man of the Match, but it could have easily gone to Rory Best or Mike Ross while all eight forwards adhered to the mantra of scrum coach Greg Feek by working together as a unit.

The penalties flowed as a result and, although it was another difficult night for place-kickers, with Jonathan Sexton and James O'Connor both struggling, Ireland's scrum dominance kept Australia on the back foot and gave them a psychological edge.

Fears that World Cup referees would reduce the impact of the scrum in order to keep the game flowing have not materialised and, though it took Ireland a while to realise the fact that Ross was the man to make them a scrummaging force, they got there in the end and now their scrum is a major weapon.

All week, the Irish camp had crackled with intent while the Wallabies could not mask a sense of complacency. The torpor of August and uncertainty of New Plymouth were banished as Ireland got their game plan spot on, while the Wallabies looked ill-prepared.

After plenty of Irish discussion about it, this was cup rugby in action, produced by players who have been reared on it since their schooldays.

Work the set-pieces, put pressure on the opposition's key men, play for territory, close down space and move the ball at the right moments.

And, when the rain began to teem in the second half and Sexton continued to put up garryowens on Kurtley Beale (Australia's best player) and Quade Cooper, we could have been in Musgrave Park, Donnybrook, Ravenhill or the Sportsground. This was old school and the Wallabies did not like it.

It was a day when everything seemed to go Ireland's way, not least the withdrawal of David Pocock and Stephen Moore before kick-off.

Shorn of their breakdown master, Australia were unable to prevent Ireland from producing good ruck ball and the Irish back-row backed up the effort of their front-five with a big performance at the breakdown.

Will Genia was the main target and the Irish hassled him through the middle throughout the game, notably when Stephen Ferris picked him up and carted him like a bag of shopping towards the Wallaby posts.

Under similar pressure, Kiwi out-half Cooper tried to force the ‘magic' to happen, butchering a couple of try-scoring opportunities through unnecessary showboating. Ireland would have liked a try themselves and came close on several occasions, notably when Tommy Bowe intercepted a Cooper folly only to be hunted down superbly by O'Connor having run the length of the pitch and then when impressive replacement Conor Murray danced over only to be called back by Bryce Lawrence.

Not a bother. It would have been good to compound Irish superiority with a bigger scoreline but 15-6 will do just fine, thank you very much.

The future is looking pretty rosy for Ireland now. The frustrating aspect to a seminal evening is the fact that it took a backs-to-the-wall build-up for Ireland to really show what they are capable of.

If they can hit this level of intensity for the remainder of the tournament, who knows how far it will take them? Russia, Italy, Wales, England and New Zealand in the final?

Don't rule it out, on this evidence, it's on.

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