As deflating as it was to lose key players and leaders from their group, Rob Kearney believes Ireland’s reconfigured World Cup squad can still deliver over the tournament’s knockout stages.
The Irish full-back helped his side to a 24-9 victory over France Sunday, scoring the opening try early in the second half that broke the game open as Joe Schmidt’s squad bounced back in style following the losses to injury of captain O’Connell and fly-half Johnny Sexton with replacements Iain Henderson and Ian Madigan at the forefront of the team effort.
A day after centre Jared Payne was ruled out for the rest of the World Cup with a foot fracture, O’Mahony’s tournament was ended three minutes after Kearney’s try when he injured knee ligaments but Kearney said Ireland have no choice but to move on quickly and focus on beating Argentina in this Sunday’s quarter-final back at the Millennium Stadium.
“It’s a mentality, sort of a relentlessness that you just have to move on,” Kearney said yesterday. “Of course it’s gutting and it’s disappointing when you lose players. We went through it with Jared the other morning too but it’s part and parcel of the game and you have to accept it there and then and move on as quickly as you can because dwelling on it is not going to do anything but affect the whole atmosphere and performance.”
Kearney said the loss of influential leaders did make it tougher to build on the performance levels set against France in Sunday’s high-intensity Pool D collision, Ireland’s first World Cup victory over the French, but the contributions made by the bench replacements including Henderson, Madigan, Jack McGrath and Chris Henry and response by the whole team in those moments of adversity had made the squad realise there was no reason why they could not continue to progress without the likes of O’Connell, O’Mahony, Payne and possibly Sexton.
“Unbelievable and it was crucial, because when you lose big leaders you need other guys to step up and to deliver. There was a huge amount of people who did that on the day.
“I was delighted with it, I wasn’t overly surprised because guys work so hard and you almost live for those moments, losing key players and it’s up to other guys to grab the bull by the horns and make value of the occasion.”
No-one impressed Kearney more than fly-half Madigan, thrown into the fray when Sexton went down with a groin problem inside the first half hour.
“I said to him after the game that yesterday was the day for him in terms of just growing into a big-game player. We needed him, his country needed him and coming on at 25 minutes I think he delivered. It was a very, very strong performance from him.
“He has an enormous amount of confidence, self-confidence, and you need that, especially in his position too.
“I think even little small things like his touch-finding off penalties was superb, he got every last inch out of it. He went for it. There was no sign of any sort of nerves at all.”
The Ireland full-back has no fears that the squad will be unable to repeat the intensity of Sunday’s performance, in part because he believed there was so much to improve upon ahead of facing an Argentine side whose game he likened to the carefree rugby of France teams in the 1970s and 80s.
“I think all this chat about holding stuff back — we weren’t. We played poorly against Italy and we knew that we needed a much bigger performance to win. That game against Canada in the Millennium Stadium in the first round stood to us quite a bit, we looked very fit out there.
“And there was times when they were out on their feet a little bit and we still had that intensity to keep going.
“There were still a lot of areas of the game that we were quite poor on and we’ll need to be better again, we got done in the air quite a few times and our discipline at the breakdown was a little bit poor.
“We got into their half and we were building a lot of phases and there were times we just looked as if we weren’t going a huge amount of places. So definitely there were a lot of satisfying things to take from it but there were quite a few facets of the game that we still need to improve on, and heavily.”
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