Niall Crozier: Bring on Wales, Ireland squad is in great shape
Ireland have raised the bar and set a new benchmark for themselves. For while they have made the World Cup quarter-finals in four of the six previous tournaments, never before have they done so as Pool winners.
Nor indeed have they recently displayed this sort of form at the tournament before in beating Australia and in the awesome second-half of yesterday’s clash with Italy.
Prior to the current RWC adventure, had they had never claimed a southern hemisphere scalp. In addition, in yesterday’s must-win match they registered their biggest victory margin – 30 points – against the Azzurri since 2000.
Many believed it was going to be incredibly tight with the outcome quite possibly dependent on the winner of the Ronan O’Gara versus Mirco Bergamasco battle of the goal-kickers.
At half-time the Irish fly-half was 3-2 up in that particular scrap. By full-time Ireland had added a further 27 points without conceding any. In the end it was emphatic.
The 36-6 triumph over often cynical opponents confirmed this Irish side’s ability to fight fire with fire and then deploy gears the scrum-dependent Italians simply simply did not possess.
There was a gulf in class and had South African referee Jonathan Kaplan adjudicated in Tommy Bowe’s favour by awarding rather than disallowing the wing’s wholly legitimate touchdown after 30 minutes, Ireland would have turned round leading 16-6 rather than 9-6.
And had he then awarded a penalty-try in the 78th minute when Bowe was tackled – without the ball – in goal by Tommaso Benvenuti as the opposing number 14s raced to get hands to it, those scores would have underlined the victors’ supremacy even more.
In the countdown to the winner-takes-all Dunedin showdown, Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll’s response to media questions about his side’s hopes of playing a fast, fluent game to maximise their superiority out wide was: “You have to earn the right to do that.”
Ireland certainly did that. To a man the pack performed, with all eight putting in another outstanding effort.
Mike Ross has emerged as a magnificent tighthead; Cian Healy on the loose side refused to be bullied or intimidated by the much-feared Martin Castrogiovanni and Rory Best’s scrummaging and line-out throw were flawless.
Second rows Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan were also immense in the heat of battle.
In the back row, Jamie Heaslip came good, raising his game to match that of the Italians’ talismanic number eight Sergio Parisse.
Either side of him Stephen Ferris and Sean O’Brien vied for the man of the match tag.
Make no mistake; on this form the Irish back row is as good as any in the world.
The Conor Murray-O’Gara half-back partnership delivered, totally vindicating coach Declan Kidney’s selection.
Gordon D’Arcy had his best match in two seasons, O’Driscoll’s huge contribution included the first of his side’s three tries, Keith Earls got two and, had justice been done, so too would Bowe.
Rob Kearney underlined his status as a Lion and his worth to this team, while respect for Kidney’s man-management skills and tactical nous has soared on the world stage.
What a cracker that promises to be.