Ireland will meet France in Cardiff on Sunday to fight for the right to avoid a quarter-final against the All Blacks, and a passage through to the semi-finals which will be impeded merely by Argentina.
But while Diego Maradona spent the afternoon watching the Pumas cruise past Tonga, Ireland stuttered their way past an emboldened Italy, who were fighting for their lives.
“We knew it was going to be tough,” said Ireland’s Kiwi coach Joe Schmidt. “They came with a win-at-all-costs attitude and they made it very, very tough for us. But we made it tough for ourselves as well and there are things that need to be improved upon.”
Keith Earls scored the game’s only try, with 19 minutes gone, after a clever offload from inside centre Robbie Henshaw, making his first World Cup start. It was Earls’ eighth World Cup try – more than Brian O’Driscoll and a new Irish record.
Three penalties from Johnny Sexton and three from Tomasso Allan was all that troubled the scoreboard for the rest of the encounter. Paul O’Connell gave away two of Italy’s penalties within reach of the posts in the game’s opening minutes.
“Sometimes when you score early in a game, especially when you’re expected to win it, your intensity can drop off a little bit,” added Schmidt. “You expect things to happen instead of making them happen and we were a little bit guilty of that.”
A high tackle from Peter O’Mahoney with eight minutes still to go was deemed dangerous enough for referee Jérôme Garcès to send him to the sin bin, leaving Ireland to face down a nervy end to the match. But even this potentially box-office conclusion failed to raise the contest to anything approaching a spectacle befitting of this grand stadium.
Had Italy’s Australian-born lock Josh Furno found an extra half a yard, either in his legs or in the width of the pitch, as he rampaged toward the corner early in the second half, it could all have been different, but a superb covering tackle from O’Mahoney deposited him into touch.
Australia at Twickenham on Saturday night gave the clearest indication of what it will take to win this tournament: invention, bravery and execution – all in very large quantities. The Irish had shown plenty of the first in their wins over Romania and Canada, but hadn’t had the other two tested. This time they came up short in all three.
That Ireland faltered at first sight of competent opposition, given the greater challenges that might lie ahead, is rightly cause for concern.
“To score tries you have to hold on to the ball to see what you can do with it,” said Irish captain O’Connell. “For us, it’s about having the ball. We’re good when we have the ball. But at times we were inaccurate. We turned it over to them and put ourselves under pressure, gave them access to our territory.”
Irish fans dominated the 53,189 who filled this vast sweeping bowl, but they never came close to raising its roof. They were never given a reason to. Occasional refrains of “Fields of Athenry” drifted gently off into the Stratford evening, haunting and melodic, but it was never hairs on the back of the neck stuff.
With England gone, Wales wounded, the reigning Six Nations champions might have been daring to imagine themselves real challengers for this tournament, in which England’s 2003 triumph remains the sole northern hemisphere victory.
There may yet be spine-tingling moments to come from this talented bunch of players, but whatever they achieve in the coming weeks will be in spite of this laboured and uncertain performance, not because of it.Reuse content