On a night of cacophonous noise in Auckland's Eden Park, where the World Cup final in five weeks' time was predicted by many to feature New Zealand and Australia – but now, who knows? – Ireland recordedtheir greatest victory in the tournament and forced a welcome reappraisal of the global pecking order.
It took eight days of pool matchesfor a shock to turn up but when it did it was a million-volter. Some of us had faith that a quality XV was lurking in Ireland's squad; their Grand Slam of 2009 was not too long in the memory and the peerless maestro Brian O'Driscoll was present and correct behind a back row of proven class.
Still the Australians' form, as traced through a first Tri-Nations title in 10 years and a galloping defeat of the All Blacks a fortnight before the World Cup, appeared much the stronger. What helped the Irish to inflict Australia's second pool defeat in seven World Cups was the wobbly Wallabies committing the same grave sin as when well beaten by England at Twickenham last autumn. When the going got tough, the space-loving Aussies caved in.
And how. Apart from a 10th-minute lapse by the loosehead prop Cian Healy that gave James O'Connor a penalty to kick Australia into a 3-0 lead, the Irish scrum was magnificent, earning half a dozen penalties and supplying gold-standard front-foot ball. Though Jonny Sexton, the Ireland fly-half, missed three kicks to continue his iffy form with the boot, the story was of his opposite number, Quade Cooper, disappearing up a blind alley of confusion.
Sexton scudded over a penalty and a drop-goal, after 15 and 17 minutes respectively. O'Connor levelled at 6-6 by half-time, before Gordon D'Arcy hobbled off to force a rejig of the Ireland backs.
Yet where the Irish teams of previous World Cups had flagged – they had never beaten any of the big five (the Tri-Nations, England and France) at the finals – O'Driscoll's team grew in confidence. They were alert and sometimes daring in attack and they were hungry in defence. Sexton's second penalty, on 48 minutes, followed by two from Ronan O'Gara, who came on at fly-half with Sexton shifting sideways, made it 15-6 with 11 minutes left. Will Genia, the Wallaby scrum-half, was picked up and driven back 15 metres by Stephen Ferris, back after injury and part of a rampant back row.
Of course, it hurt Australia that their breakdown specialist, David Pocock, had pulled out in the morning with a back strain, together with the ill hooker Stephen Moore. But as the Ireland coach, Declan Kidney, pointed out, his side had lost their specialist No 7, David Wallace, before the tournament. It happened against England in the fourth of four warm-up losses in August; what a misleading form guide that looks to be now.
"You can only play what's out against you," said Kidney. "Our guys played well tonight, it is the first time our back row has had a game together and they can get stronger from tonight's performance. It's the fifth time we have played Australia in the Rugby World Cup and you get a bit fed up with losing."
An ebullient O'Driscoll fed off the thousands of Irish supporters in a big crow, though he cautioned: "We're not sat here with the Webb Ellis Cup by our sides, so let's not get too carried away."
There had been emotional fuel in the Irish tank beforehand, too. Jerry Flannery, the Munster hooker who lost his place in the squad when he tore a calf muscle last week, handed the team their jerseys with tears in his eyes. His pal Paul O'Connell had spoken in O'Driscoll's captain's meeting about not letting yet another chance go by. O'Connell was a towering presence in the line-out; Sean O'Brien's tackle on Genia when the No 9 threatened the line was another thrilling contribution.
With 77 minutes gone, Australia tapped and ran. The time was now for their richly gifted backs to strike. Ireland, who had lost to the Wallabies in the World Cups of 1987, 1991, 1999 and 2003 (twice by one point), stared history in the face. Cooper threw a behind-the-back pass which was anticipated and intercepted by Tommy Bowe.
That Bowe was brilliantly chased down by O'Connor, on an 80-metre run, was neither here nor there. Ireland had opened up new possibilities in the draw. This could be good news for England or Wales or someone else but that would be to rely on form and seedings again. Perhaps after this spectacular night we should not pay them quite so much attention.
Australia: K Beale; J O'Connor, A Fainga'a (D Mitchell, 74), P McCabe, A Ashley-Cooper; Q Cooper, W Genia; S Kepu, T Polota Nau, B Alexander (J Slipper, 61), D Vickerman (R Simmons, 61), J Horwill (capt), R Elsom (W Palu, 72), R Samo (S Higginbotham, 74), B McCalman.
Ireland: R Kearney (A Trimble, 74); T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (capt; Trimble, 59-62), G D'Arcy (R O'Gara, 49), K Earls; J Sexton, E Reddan (C Murray, 57); C Healy, R Best, M Ross (T Court, 76), D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell, S Ferris, J Heaslip, S O'Brien.
Referee: B Lawrence (New Zealand).Reuse content