THE famed twin towers may no longer be standing but Wembley remains an intoxicating sports arena for players and fans alike, writes Donal Lenihan. Why else would a world record attendance for a Rugby World Cup game be broken two Sundays in succession?
That 89,019 would turn up for New Zealand’s opening game against a quality Argentinean side is understandable in a tournament of this nature, but a capacity showing of 89,267 for Ireland-Romania says so much more. In many respects, it was one of the many sideshows revolving around this game as the outcome was never going to yield anything other than a comprehensive victory for Ireland.
So two weeks into the tournament and Joe Schmidt is in the happy position of giving game time to 30 of his 31-man squad with Robbie Henshaw hopefully set to make it a full house when it was declared yesterday he is all but certain to feature against Italy next Sunday at yet another iconic venue, London’s Olympic Stadium.
That so many of the players have now seen game time in the tournament will add to the feel-good factor and everyone in the squad will feel they have contributed to the efforts to date and have a part to play. That’s important.
Donal Lenihan speaks about the positives and negatives from Ireland’s win. Video by Dan Linehan.
On the basis of Italy’s totally unconvincing 23-18 win over Canada on Saturday, Ireland have the capacity to negotiate that challenge with perhaps a lot less anxiety than would have been felt when the draw was first made over a year ago. The downside is it may well leave them short of a serious hit-out in this tournament before the defining contest against France the following week.
Having watched England and Wales tear into each other on Saturday night and Argentina hit New Zealand with everything they had in the opening round, you just hope Ireland won’t be caught cold when the big guns arrive and the margin for error gets tighter. One step at a time, however, and Ireland have answered all the questions asked to date — albeit against gritty and stubborn Tier Two opposition.
With a debilitating four-day turnaround after their opening game against France, Ireland set out to shift the big Romanian pack around the field and set them on the back foot from the outset. They managed this to great effect and denied Romania the set-piece platform they felt they needed in order to impose the best elements of their game on a much-changed Irish set-up.
The fact that Ireland forced Romania into making 103 tackles in a high tempo opening half was always going to take a toll but to be fair, the Romanians never capitulated and imposed themselves to the final whistle, a point underlined by the fact that their only try arrived three minutes from the end.
The big winners for Ireland were the back three of Keith Earls, Simon Zebo and Tommy Bowe who combined magnificently before Earls, who was sublime, was forced to leave the field after receiving yet another worrying knock to the head. Thankfully it appears he was fine after the game to conduct TV interviews.
Zebo has openly courted a run at full-back and showed some magnificent touches in a very polished and complete performance. His wondrous 20-metre skip pass to put Earls over in the corner in the opening half was up there with Quade Cooper at his best. Most satisfying of all was the sight of Bowe with confidence restored after a recent rocky period by his high standards.
Competition for back three places is now at an all time high but one hopes that the brief, seven-minute, cameo appearance from Rob Kearney off the bench won’t come at a high cost. He did not look happy when limping off with a hip injury after scoring in the corner only two minutes after his introduction.
Shaun Cronin, head sports reporter for breakingnews.ie, spoke to the Irish Examiner’s rugby correspondent Simon Lewis after the game. Video by Dan Linehan.
The one concern I would have from a defensive perspective is that any time the Romanians succeeded in retaining possession for a sustained period, they managed to make serious yardage.
Ireland’s intensity and line speed without the ball was way off what will be required for the bigger tests ahead and that is something that will have to be carried into those contests as opposed to attempting to find it in the heat of battle. The intensity Wales brought to that aspect of their game in Twickenham 20 hours earlier was light years ahead in that respect and Ireland will need to be conscious of that. The atmosphere in Wembley was more akin to a Mardi Gras than a World Cup contest. The whole thing was slightly surreal.
From the tournament perspective, yet another Tier Two side emerged with pride and reputation intact after two rounds of captivating action. So far Ireland have ticked all the boxes. 13 tries in two games, a maximum 10 points in the bag and all the right messages emanating from the camp. Off the field the pictures from their visit to Alton Towers show a group happy in their own skin and embracing all the positives from the event. By way of contrast, the pressure on England became too much to handle on Saturday night and they are now in danger of becoming the first host country not to make it into the knockout phase.
Right now we are in a good place.
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