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Rugby World Cup: Ireland can’t throw it all away now

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Conor Murray warms up for the huge game against Italy during a training session yesterday

Conor Murray warms up for the huge game against Italy during a training session yesterday

©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Conor Murray warms up for the huge game against Italy during a training session yesterday

It’s been a strange week at World Cup Ireland.

In the lead-up to the victory over Australia, there was a calm determination around the Irish camp and a palpable sense that something momentous was going to take place that weekend at Eden Park.

Two weeks on, having flipped from outside shots to nailed-on certainties, the feeling is more one of nervous energy with a definite hint of trepidation given the consequences of failure.

Ireland find themselves in a strange psychological position —three wins from three (one underwhelming, two convincing) have placed them in the role of tournament-changers and many people’s wildcard selection to reach the final.

And yet, for all those positive vibes, Ireland still have to try to get their heads around the knowledge that if it goes pear-shaped tomorrow, the run-in will have counted for nothing and they will be out on their backsides once again.

Exiting at the pool stages four years ago was a disaster but an expected one due to the fact that Ireland never got going at that tournament. To crash out now, having finally put themselves in a position to achieve something meaningful at a World Cup, would be nothing short of a catastrophe.

Could it happen? Theoretically, yes. The Italians are bullish about their chances and believe (as they have not been slow to tell everyone this week) they have the forwards to put Ireland on the back foot and the resolve to send them packing.

Italy also find themselves in the role Ireland profited from against Australia – expected to perform bravely, and lose.

Meanwhile, Ireland are back in the expected-to-win position that has consistently seen them underperform in the past and, while results should not come down to these type of intangibles, these are two teams for whom the mental can be as potent as the physical.

However, you cannot imagine Ireland coach Declan Kidney allowing his men to run out at Otago Stadium without the right mind-set.

He has picked a team to get the job done, spearheaded by an out-half whose record against Italy (12 matches, 12 wins, 164 points), should serve to calm nerves and instil confidence.

The Irish players are all accustomed to beating their Italian counterparts on a regular basis and there is no reason to stop now. Beating Australia turned the Irish into World Cup contenders – now they need to live up to that billing.

RUCK ‘EM AND SEE

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After their scrum dominance, the breakdown was the most productive area of Irish activity in the win over Australia. It was instructive this week to see how the issue of Sean O’Brien playing at open-side was not raised once when he faced the media as his performance (and that of Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip alongside) against the Wallabies rendered it irrelevant.

In Parisse, Alesandro Zanni and Mauro Bergamasco, Italy have a back-row that can measure up to the best around and O’Brien is well aware of the importance of the ground-grappling contest tomorrow.

“The breakdown is a massive thing in every game, we sort that out and we sort out our tackle contest and it goes a long way towards beating a side,” said O’Brien (pictured).

“The same principles will apply that we had that day (against Australia) we just have to go out and

really front up to the ruck and take it to them. They have been playing that (back-row) combination for a while and they are strong. Parisse is a world class player and we’ll have to be on top form to get on top of them.”

Do so, and Ireland will have taken a significant step towards victory.

INSIDE JOB

Conditions have been variable, at best, in Ireland’s three matches but the closed roof in Dunedin creates possibilities.

First of all, there is the hothouse atmosphere that has to favour the Irish, who will have the majority of supporters in Otago Stadium. Secondly, it creates an environment – dry ball, little wind factor – to run at Italy out wide.

Mallett and his men have been banging on about scoring 13 tries to Ireland’s 12 against the same pool opponents and believe they have the attacking game to hurt Ireland but the Irish backline is markedly superior.

Ireland will target an Italian lineout that wobbled against America (apparently Gert Smal is helping them learn Italian to decipher calls) and on their own throw, ball off the top can be spread wide as quickly as possible.

With the help of midfield facilitators and strong forward carries, the Irish back three can be sent running onto possession and into the heart of the Italian defence which has conceded eight tries in three outings.

A lot has been made of the Italian pack but matching them in the tight and then moving them around the park could pay handsome dividends for the Irish.

VERDICT

The implications of an Irish defeat and pool exit are too calamitous to contemplate.

Not only would it spell a sad World Cup final chapter for the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and Geordan Murphy, it would also put Declan Kidney under inordinate pressure not long after his signed a two-year contract extension. Man for man, Ireland have too much firepower and appear to have fostered the mental fortitude to bring it out.

That does not mean that victory tomorrow will come easy and we are likely to be treated to a war of attrition up front.

The Italians will not be subtle but they will be intense and patience will be required to break them down. The scrums and breakdown battlers should cancel each other out, but Ireland have the advantage in attack and, crucially, in defence.

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