Apart from the breakfast time start, there was something different about this game and its aftermath. It was the realisation that this had gone as well as you might have wished. Over the years, Ireland have sometimes failed to deliver and have sometimes got the result but with caveats and qualifications attached. This result ensured qualification and suggested more.
Ireland progress serenely into the knockout rounds with two outhalfs who would start for the All Blacks, in the wake of Dan Carter’s unfortunate and disappointing injury. These are the sort of problems that St Deccie has. They’re nice problems.
The atmosphere at the game was unusual and distinctive. The provinces’ success over the last decade has promoted rugby to a different place in the Irish psyche than it enjoyed for the previous century. The game became more accessible and a different crowd turned up at Thomond and the RDS. However, international matches still seem to draw a more traditional support, it almost seems that tickets are handed down through generations or placed in trust. The recession and the tournament location have altered the demographics of Ireland’s international support hugely. The distance to New Zealand and the straitened times at home have precluded many fans from making the trip. However, many of the emigrating masses have ended up in Australia and NZ. They’re in their twenties and thirties; they’re having craic and making noise. The support at all games has been fantastic and is worth points to the team, partly because of the impact on the team, partly because of the impact on the ref. It is likely that Ireland will have more fans than anyone else bar the hosts at any remaining games.
Mole remarkedbefore the game that Conor Murray’s selection for such an important game had been overshadowed by O’Gara’s return to the starting XV. The decision to start him stood out but he looked to the manor born in the test match arena. The conventional wisdom is that he was picked for his physicality, because he’s big. Mole doesn’t really hold with that one. You bring three scrum halves and three hookers to the World Cup because they’re specialist positions and you need to have cover on the bench. You don’t intend to start your third choice unless you’ve injuries or you don’t know who your first choice is. Pop quiz: name the third choice scrum halves for Australia and England*. If Kidney just wanted physicality, he’d have picked Boss. He picked Murray because he’s the best scrum half in the squad. His passing was good and he was usually available to move the ball quickly. He also made a break from the back of the lineout that gave Ireland a dimension they haven’t had in the professional era. For the best part of the decade, Stringer and O’Gara started for Ireland and meant that we’d no running threat at halfback. Now, with Murray and Sexton we’ve got two guys who can run and tackle. Things look good. Murray’s emergence is also interesting in a bigger picture view. His interview with Peter O’Reilly reveals that he was a soccer player when he was younger but took up rugby, partly because he “saw the hype around the schools cup.” The more kids that play the game, the more good athletes become available. It’s fortunate that one has announced himself on the biggest stage.
Murray wasn’t the only one showing good habits against the Italians. Many of Ireland’s basic skills were well executed. Two moments that stood out were D’Arcy’s pass to Tommy Bowe that set him off on his run towards the penalty non-try (eh?) and Trimble’s pass to Earls for the final try. Both centres straightened up and timed their pass perfectly. No crabbing across eating the space, no throwing the pass so that it checked the run of the pace man, just well executed basics.
Finally, Ireland are taking large doses of Vitamin C – confidence. You can’t bottle it, you can’t buy it, you have to work to get it but work doesn’t guarantee it. Cian Healy’s shit eating grin after Ireland earned a penalty at scrum time in the first half was an enjoyable manifestation of it. The squad seems united and focused. They have a lot of Heineken Cup experience that will help prepare them for knockout rugby. Wales await. The Taffs looks fit and sharp. It promises to be a belter in what is now a very open World Cup.
P.S. It wouldn’t surprise the Mole if Ireland pay a visit to Christchurch on the way back from Dunedin and show an interest in the rebuilding of the city after the earthquake. Hearts and minds.
*Nick Phipps (Australia) and Joe Simpson (England). I had to look Simpson up.