Before looking forward to a quartet of mouthwatering World Cup knockout clashes next weekend, I have to indulge myself again on Ireland’s character- filled pool win over France last Sunday.
There are days when sport supersedes everything else, when the trials and tribulations of everyday life can legitimately be cast to one side for a moment in order to savour epic confrontations, such as we were treated to last weekend.
Laying aside the inherent difficulties associated with the Welsh capital on occasions such as this, and I have documented those on numerous occasions over the years, there is no better rugby arena in the world than the Millennium Stadium, with the roof closed and a capacity audience.
Given that the Irish and French supporters rank among the best in the world, that potent mix was always guaranteed to deliver an atmosphere to savour. When “La Marseillaise” is belted out in full voice, it would inspire anyone, regardless of their jersey. Even Ireland’s Call felt special last Sunday.
Cardiff was awash with colour from midday, with both sets of fans mixing freely, savouring each other’s company. That spirit was epitomised by the scene witnessed immediately to the left of my commentary perch as the anthems started. A proud French fan, covered from head to toe in blue, white and red, sang “La Marseillaise” with the tears streaming down his face.
His right arm was draped around his wife or girlfriend or perhaps even his mistress — he was French, after all! — while his left arm was locked in a vice-like grip on a passionate Irish fan, bedecked in green jersey and a mop of died green hair, whom he had only met about 15 minutes earlier.
When Ireland’s Call followed — the French are besotted with what they call Shoulder to Shoulder — our French friend sang that with equal gusto. Extraordinary.
What other international sporting event carries such genuine harmony? And if you think the French are a passionate bunch, wait until you see the amazing Argentine supporters bouncing up and down from the stands, waving their scarves in unison and listen to them belt out their anthem “Himno Nocional Argentino” next Sunday. Irish fans are set for another treat.
If unbridled passion was the order of the day from the stands, it was matched in equal measure by what the Irish players delivered in the heat of battle on the field. No wonder the Irish dressing room resembled a warzone after the game. The full price of that victory will only become evident next Sunday, but the loss of Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony is inestimable.
For O’Connell, unlike his equally iconic former captain Brian O’Driscoll, there will be no fairytale ending to his awe-inspiring international career that came to the worst possible ending last Sunday.
His departure from the field of play during the half-time break may have been missed by a worldwide television audience, but not by an emotional stadium audience.
Rarely have 69,000 people been as united in their admiration of one man as they stood in unison to applaud and mark their heartfelt appreciation for what he has brought to the international stage for well over a decade. Toulon’s gain, if he makes it that far, is Ireland’s loss.
Players are trained nowadays to cope with the physical demands of the game, but it was in the mental stakes where Ireland exceeded all expectations. To lose players with the skill, poise, presence and leadership qualities of Johnny Sexton, O’Connell and O’Mahony in quick succession would test the mental fortitude of the best of teams.
No team-building exercise could ever replicate the type of trauma experienced by Ireland in the opening half in Cardiff, yet not only did they cope, they revelled in adversity. They were not going to be beaten, whatever the circumstances.
Joe Schmidt’s greatest achievement, and there have been so many, has been to preside over a system that, regardless of who is lost to the system due to injury or illness in the hours before the game or in the midst of the contest itself, the team has the capacity to carry on regardless.
The players introduced off the bench or slotted in just a few hours before kick off know exactly what is expected of them. That quality will be tested to the full against Argentina in the wake of the injury tsunami that has engulfed the camp this week.
On Sunday, Ian Madigan, Iain Henderson and Chris Henry accepted the challenge of covering the loss of the three totems of this Irish side with such composure and expertise that the overall efficiency of the performance wasn’t hindered in any way.
Having to cope without at least two and possibly more of those heroic figures from the outset against the Pumas poses an entirely different challenge now.
What we know is that Ireland are where they wanted to be and need to recalibrate fairly quickly to gear up for what promises to be a challenge of even greater proportions to that faced from the outset against France.
The talk for some time now is that the gap between the rugby powerhouses of the northern and southern hemispheres has narrowed considerably. That theory will be well-and-truly tested with four cracking quarter-finals next weekend.
Right now, Australia look to be in a good place and will be thrilled to be on our side of the draw, with the bonus of only coming up against New Zealand or South Africa in the final. Just how significant will that 13 minutes of unyielding defiance when the Wallabies were down to 13 men against a rampant Welsh side prove in the long run? I suspect it could prove the catalyst for great things.
That’s the type of unifying experience that transforms contenders into winners, similar to what Ireland experienced in Cardiff. Scotland look ill-equipped to deal with the potent mix of exhilarating attacking play and new-found set-piece solidity that Australia are delivering with regularity at present.
Not for the first time in this tournament, Wales, after a horrendously tough pool schedule, find themselves with backs firmly against the wall and are fast running out of players. The latest injury to Liam Williams has left them horrendously short on fit three-quarters and they will find it very difficult to cope with a resurgent Springbok outfit.
New Zealand face an opponent that they genuinely fear in France, but, after being caught cold in the 1999 semi-final and again in that memorable quarter-final contest in 2007, I will be flabbergasted if they are found wanting again this time out. France lack the quality in attack necessary to catch the All Blacks on the hop and possess nothing like the individual flair or brilliance that delivered those shock results in the past.
Ireland have what it takes to make a first ever World Cup semi-final, but will need to be extremely smart to beat this ever-evolving and improving Argentine side.
The loss of O’Connell, O’Mahony and now Sean O’Brien could not be worse timed, given how well the Argentine forwards have played in the tournament to date, but Schmidt and the squad have a few days to find a way.
If he unleashes Donncha Ryan in the second row, shifts Henderson to the back row along with Jamie Heaslip and Henry, Ireland will remain extremely competitive, even if our bench, which has been outstanding to date, is inevitably compromised.
The opening line of ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ from the musical Evita sums up Ireland’s challenge, succinctly: It won’t be easy...
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