Rory Best stayed on the pitch for a remarkable eighty minutes, proving that he deserves the Captain’s armband in a walloping of our Celtic rivals Scotland.
The game finished 27-3 with Ireland scoring four tries to earn the bonus point and cement us firmly in first position in the pool. Japan await on Saturday after a short turnaround that is sure to force some squad rotation.
The promised wet weather hit just as the first half was finishing. But the damage had been done by an overpowering Irish pack by that stage. All three first half tries were scored by the front five in a remarkably ruthless half of rugby.
James Ryan’s opening score showed the young man’s power close to the line. Not his first try. This guy is so versatile that he will soon be the captain of the side. The Scots could not challenge the Irish line out in which Iain Henderson also featured. His break led to the first try.
Captain Rory Best got in for the second try with Ireland’s set piece causing havoc in the Scottish defence. The Irish kept possession well throughout the first half and looked like scoring every time they got into the opposition half.
Furlong barrelled over for the third before the half was out. This was not the script Joe Schmidt had been worrying about all week. The planning and preparation, including being under-cooked for England, have paid off. We are in the driving seat.
Japan did not show enough against Russia, despite also getting a bonus point win, for this squad to fear anything from them on Saturday. When you consider that players such as Kearney, Earls, Carbery and Henshaw will most likely be fit and contesting for places, the six day turnaround is less of a worry.
Losing today would have meant Joe would be under pressure to name nearly the same team. This breathing room now allows some selection and resting. Aki, van der Flier and O’Mahony all took knocks and Sexton was unable to perform the kicking duties with what looked like a hamstring strain; Conor Murray acted as his deputy, slotting one from three conversions with those missed from out wide.
So the long wait is over, the competition that Ireland has been waiting for these long months and years is finally up and running with a great start. A chance for redemption in the face of previous disappointment in early exits is now in our hands.
We have not won the pool yet, but it is hard to feel too worried about not getting there with a great win over the second best team in the pool, by a long shot. The Samoans may have something to say about things before it is all over, and the Japanese cannot be fully discounted, but Ireland look to be in a great position to top the pool. It is in our hands to win.
South Africa fought valiantly against New Zealand. If you stopped watching the game on twenty minutes and were told the result later, you would not have believed it. A penalty that hit the crossbar, a sloppy pass and the All Blacks had driven the game to within five meters of the South African line in a heart beat. They really are the true kings of the counter attack.
In that first quarter, they had plenty of possession, but could not break through the implacable Springbok defence. It really looked like they were going to be squeezed out of the game.
Then in a six minute blitz, the game turned on its head. First the ball was narrowly defended, but illegally. New Zealand took the three pointer, happy to get on the score board after their first visit to enemy territory.
Then a blitz of tries, a mixture of South African mistakes and incredibly ruthless counter-attacking. The selection of Bauden Barret at full back was a real stroke of genius, as he orchestrated the first try. His brother got on the scoreboard for the second.
Neither South Africa nor New Zealand will be challenged in the remaining pool matches. They will enter the quarter finals fresh, just like us. Now we know that it is probably going to be the Springboks that we face.
It was never going to be easy, but now at least we know. Joe can begin planning how he is going to revolve the squad so that all players that he needs for that dramatic encounter will be primed and ready.
The English bullied us twice this year. The Welsh did the same in the Six Nations, but we turned the corner and paid them back with back to back warm up wins. Can we rise to the challenge to defeat a huge, muscular, brutish pack, with huge speed in the backline? It is going to take one hell of a lot of effort.
The players struggled with the sticky, humid heat today, as did other teams. Things may cool towards the end of October, but stamina is going to be a key in outlasting our likely quarter final opponents.
One positive from today was the kicking of Conor Murray, which was vastly improved from anything we have seen this year. Also Jack Carty kicked for territory as if he was playing at home in the Sportsground. Kicking will be a key against the Springbok. If we can keep their forwards turning and chasing back, playing for territory whenever we can, and our defence proves as miserly as it was today, I think we have a chance.
There is a long way to go before that, however. The small matter of navigating bruising encounters with Japan, Russia and Samoa need to be managed first. Let’s enjoy the win and look forward to playing the hosts in what is likely to be a wonderful occassion next week.