VIDEO: Increased spotlight will pay off for Ireland

There may be a full round of pool games to go over the course of the next seven days but already five teams, including Ireland, have booked a safe passage to the knockout phase of the Rugby World Cup.

VIDEO: Increased spotlight will pay off for Ireland

That, coupled with the exit of hosts England, may not be ideal from the perspective of the organisers, but the quality of fare on offer on the pitch is such that it doesn’t impact on the success of the tournament to date in any way.

Along with Joe Schmidt’s squad, New Zealand, Wales, Australia and France have all booked safe passage while Argentina are all but there with Tonga requiring a bonus point win over New Zealand to usurp them.

Two from South Africa, Scotland and, my team of the tournament thus far (Japan), will also survive the cull. Unfortunately the Brave Blossoms appear destined to lose out despite the fact that they now look certain to win three of their four games in Pool B. With the first part of the equation in securing a quarter final appointment in Cardiff in two weeks time satisfactorily completed, despite a very average performance at the Olympic Stadium yesterday, the only outstanding detail for Ireland after this defeat of Italy revolves around the rather significant issue of who we will come up against.

Beat France next weekend and Argentina await back at the Millennium Stadium with an additional day’s rest on offer as a significant bonus. Lose and its Richie McCaw’s All Blacks at the same venue on Saturday week. For that to happen, however, Ireland will need to be far more aggressive from the outset, both in attack and defence than they were in London yesterday.

The fact that qualification has now been achieved should help to ease the nerves and anxiety levels within the group but the lack of a cutting edge in attack will be a concern. Back in 2011, Ireland did a demolition job on a far better Italian side than this in their final pool outing in Dunedin, and will need to show significant improvement in a whole range of areas to overturn a French team hell bent on beating us.

On a perfect day for rugby, Ireland failed to impose themselves for any sustained period and were dangerously left hanging on to a fraught seven-point lead, having to negotiate the final eight minutes of the game with Peter O’Mahony in the sin bin. To their credit the Irish half backs of Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton managed that crucial period particularly well.

Had O’Mahony not executed a try saving tackle in the corner on the rampaging Italian second row Josh Furno deep into the second half, Ireland would have been in even graver danger. In some respects, this performance was like been transported back in time to Bordeaux in the 2007 World Cup when Namibia and Georgia both made Ireland sweat for long periods.

This is an average Italian side, even by recent standards, and the fact that they made Ireland work so hard for this win is a big concern. They did so by taking away our set piece platform, specifically with a clever kicking game that afforded Ireland very few attacking line-outs.

Ireland use that phase to launch their influential maul and to run specific power plays off Sexton and the midfield. From there the back row come into play to carry over the gain line. The problem for Ireland, in the opening half especially, was that key forwards like Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip and O’Mahony were left redundant in the carrying stakes.

Without that momentum, the Irish backs became an easy target for a very well organised Italian defensive effort. With the exception of the only try of the game, provided yet again by Keith Earls after an excellent steal from O’Mahony on an Italian defensive lineout and a super offload for Robbie Henshaw, Ireland rarely threatened.

In fact had the Italian lineout, with hooker Andrea Manici having a bit of an nightmare on his first start in the absence of the experienced Leonardo Ghiraldini, not imploded every time it gained a foothold in the Irish twenty two, Ireland could well have been under even more pressure.

Despite the massive Irish presence in the crowd of 53,187, the whole occasion just felt a bit flat. Even the Fields of Athenry was sung a little half heartedly.

Of even more concern for me is that, for the second week in a row, Ireland again lacked urgency and conviction in defence. They cannot afford to offer Matheau Bastareaud that type of leeway next weekend.

The one shining light, especially in the opening period when all around him were just a little too nice for my liking, was new second row sensation Iain Henderson. He gets better and better with every outing and it now appears as if this laid back character has begun to appreciate just how good he could be. No better place to demonstrate that than at a World Cup tournament.

When Ireland needed people to carry the game to Italy, Henderson was the one to step forward, which made the decision to substitute him after 67 minutes a little strange. If this game was an exercise in dampening expectations ahead of the big clashes that will come thick and fast from here on in, then it had the desired effect.

When compared to the mesmeric attacking brilliance that Australia brought to Twickenham on Saturday or the brutal physicality South Africa has rediscovered since their humiliation at the hands of Japan, Ireland are off the pace at the moment.

In many respects the fact that Ireland have arrived at this point without having to produce anything overly spectacular is a bonus as there is undoubtedly a lot more to come from this side. If any team is geared to bring out the best in Ireland then it is France for, despite how average they have appeared in recent years, we always struggle to beat them. I have no doubt that Ireland will play with far more intensity and carry a far greater physical edge next Sunday for the simple reason that they will have to.

The goal now is to match the landmark achievement of the 2011 World Cup, when Ireland topped their pool for the first time in seven attempts at the tournament. To do so once again would reflect the massive strides made in the game in this country since the advent of professionalism.

The bad news for Joe Schmidt is that, with England out of the tournament, the focus of many within the vast English media pool will switch Ireland’s way. Ireland may have drifted along in blissful serenity to this point but that looks certain to change from here on in.

In some respects I suspect that is no bad thing.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2021

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