Ireland booked their place in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals with a comprehensive victory over Samoa but they will have to go into the knockout stages without Bundee Aki following the centre’s first-half red card.
Joe Schmidt’s side did exactly what was required to guarantee their progress to the last eight, securing the try bonus point just before half-time that allowed them to keep their destiny in their own hands without relying on the outcome of Japan’s clash with Scotland on Sunday.
Yet as encouraging as this seven-try victory at Hakatanomori Stadium was after two patchy performances against Pool A rivals Japan and Russia, the celebrations will be tempered following Aki’s 28th-minute yellow card for a high tackle on Samoan fly-half Ulupano Seuteni.
Samoa had seen hooker Seilala Lam yellow carded for a similar offence in a tackle on Jacob Stockdale but Australian referee Nic Berry and his officials decided there was a greater degree of danger to the ball carrier with Aki’s high contact, his left shoulder meeting Seuteni’s jaw. The fly-half was forced off for a Head Injury Assessment from which he did not return but Aki had already left the pitch and the concern will be that a disciplinary hearing could extend his punishment beyond the mandatory one-match ban.
Ireland were already in control of this game in much cooler and less humid conditions that had contributed to their malaise in defeat to Japan and also the 35-0 win over Russia. Aki was dismissed with his side leading 21-5 thanks to tries from captain Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong and Johnny Sexton but the red card followed a worrying reply from Samoa captain Jack Lam.
Schmidt’s men got over their wobble, Sexton adding another try just before half-time to send his side into the break 26-5 up and with the bonus point already logged. Second-half tries from man of the match and full-back Jordan Larmour, CJ Stander and replacement Andrew Conway followed without reply but whether Ireland meet South Africa or New Zealand in the quarters up in Tokyo next weekend, they will find much more powerful and stubborn resistance than that offered by this brave but limited Samoan side.
Ireland will not know their quarter-final opponents until the resolution of Sunday’s Yokohama clash between the Brave Blossoms and the Scots.
World Rugby will rule on Sunday morning whether that match can beat Typhoon Hagibis and be staged as planned.
A cancellation would see the game ruled a scoreless draw and both teams awarded two points, with Scotland eliminated and Japan topping the pool.
Ireland would then face New Zealand on Saturday, October 19 with Japan taking on the Springboks the following day.
Schmidt’s men were at least able to ride out the nation’s first World Cup red card with precious little issue.
Aki’s dismissal carried plenty of parallels with CJ Stander’s red card against his native South Africa in 2016. Stander was left gutted to be sent off in his first match against his homeland, but even then Ireland prevailed, winning 26-20 in the first Test of that summer series.
So it proved in Fukuoka too, with Ireland moving on easily enough but still counting the cost.
A textbook penalty lineout maul handed Ireland the perfect start, with captain Best claiming the first try just three minutes in.
Samoa hooker Seilala Lam was sin-binned for a high shot on Jacob Stockdale, paving the way for Ireland to strike again.
Another penalty lineout maul pushed Ireland into the 22, and Furlong bulldozed through four defenders to claim a fine try.
James Ryan rescued Ireland with a stunning lineout steal in his own 22, and that set Ireland en route to try number three, with Larmour breaking the line and sending Sexton home.
Sexton’s third conversion had Ireland 21-0 ahead and cruising at the end of the first quarter.
Despite Jack Lam squeezing in for a Samoa try Ireland were still comfortable – but then everything changed with Aki’s red card.
The teak-tough centre of Samoan descent thundered into Seuteni, connected with his head – and was standing upright enough in the process to warrant a straight dismissal.
And so Ireland were left to battle more than 50 minutes with 14 men, in a huge test of their World Cup resolve.
But just as when Stander was sent off against South Africa in 2016, so here too Ireland rode out Aki’s red card.
Schmidt’s side even stole the bonus-point score before the break, Conor Murray sneaking down a poorly-defended blindside and sending Sexton in for his second try of the night.
Ireland extended that 26-5 interval lead when Larmour crossed on the right flanker, courtesy of more fine work from Murray and Sexton.
TJ Ioane was then sin-binned for repeated Samoan infringement, paving the way for another Ireland score.
Replacement lock Jean Kleyn was denied a try, held up over the line – but on the very next attack his Munster team-mate Stander bulldozed over.
Joey Carbery’s smartly stubbed grubber kick let Conway steam home too to seal the victory late on.
IRELAND: J Larmour; K Earls, R Henshaw (A Conway, 62), B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton (J Carbery, 50), C Murray (L McGrath, 52); C Healy (D Kilcoyne, 56), R Best - captain (N Scannell, 50), T Furlong (A Porter, 45); I Henderson, James Ryan (J Kleyn, 56); T Beirne (P O’Mahony, 60), J van der Flier, CJ Stander.
Red card: B Aki 28 mins
SAMOA: T Nanai-Williams; A Tuala (K Fonotia, 50, A Leiua, H Taefu, E Fidow; U Seuteni (T Pisi, 29), D Polataivao (P Cowley, 69); L Mulipola (P Alo-Emile, 53), S Lam (R Niuia, 46), M Alaalatoa (Jordan Lay, 46); T Paulo (R Niuia, 14-16; P Faasalele, 53), K Le'aupepe; C Vui, TJ Ioane (J Tyrell, 69), J Lam - captain.
Yellow card: S Lam 6-16 mins, TJ Ioane 58-68
Referee: Nic Berry (Australia).