Irish light the powder keg in bid for glory

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The Independent Online

Forget all the bluff and the blarney, Eddie O'Sullivan had a simple decision to make for Ireland's final pool game against Australia here today. Throw on his reserves, keep the powder dry and face the might of France in next week's quarter-finals. Or throw on his first XV, ignite the powder keg, and pray his side make it through to face Scotland or Fiji instead.

Hobson's customers had tougher choices to make. Because after shrugging off that major irritant known as Argentina last week, Ireland's World Cup will very likely start and finish here should they not win tonight. Losing gallantly to Australia would be one thing, but raising themselves to beat the French the very next? This is the real world - the real World Cup, for that matter - and O'Sullivan knows it.

Quite simply, Keith Wood, Brian O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara and the rest of an often misfiring green machine need to conjure the games of their lives at the Telstra Dome to avoid meeting Bernard Laporte's ever-improving Gallic gladiators. Australia, however, will be just as hell-bent on victory - and thus a smoother semi-final thoroughfare - in a contest that is perhaps the most mouth-watering of the tournament so far.

The stakes are high and what makes them even higher is the history between these two. Ever since Ollie Campbell kicked them to a famous 9-3 victory in Sydney 24 years ago, the Australians have viewed the Irish as their bogey team. True, Ireland have only lowered the gold and green once since then - on a tear-filled day in Dublin last November - but have run them painfully close on a number of occasions. The most agonising of all, of course, was the 19-18 heart-stopper in the 1991 World Cup quarter-final in Dublin when only Michael Lynagh's injury-time burst of genius ruined what was already a party in full swing.

That memory dies hard and O'Sullivan realised as much when naming a full-strength side. "If we did anything less than pick our best team, we'd be capitulating for a game we believe we can win and believe we have every right to go after. I know we won't be favourites for it, but that's no reason not to go out and win it."

Said like a true Irishman, although a great deal of today's onus may rest on shoulders that are not entirely sure whether they are Irish or Australian. The opensider Keith Gleeson left Dublin for Sydney when he was seven, but has returned to his origins to help form a back row that could just have the measure of their counterparts. The front five, led by the omnipotent Wood, will also fancy their chances of gaining at least parity. And so the match could come down to the backs.

It is here that Eddie Jones will believe his Wallabies hold sway, despite his detractors accusing him of being too conservative in choosing the steadiness of Matt Burke at outside-centre over the incisiveness of Stirling Mortlock. Jones responds by rightfully pointing out that with Stephen Larkham at stand-off, with the pace and power of Joe Roff and Wendell Sailor on the wings and with the aesthetic running charms of Mat Rogers at full-back, his backline has quite enough incision thank you very much. Jones might also point to the 142-0 sponsored-try stroll over Namibia last week as evidence that he knows what his backline is capable of. Indeed, slowly but surely, the Australians are starting to believe in their side again.

Nevertheless, O'Sullivan will see opportunities abounding for O'Driscoll and Kevin Maggs in the Irish midfield. It is with this in mind that he opted for O'Gara over David Humphreys, the Munster man's creative instincts winning Ireland's trickiest selection poser.

The coach's biggest headache, however, has been caused by the referee, Paddy O'Brien, and the differing interpretations of the laws the New Zealander will no doubt bring. "There are some issues there despite the best efforts in the world to homogenise the refereeing," he said. "Last week we came out the wrong side of the referee for whatever reason and got hammered 13-8 in the penalty count. In a game that tight, a 13-8 penalty count is a very scary place to be."

Not as scary as it would be in this match. During 80 minutes in which Ireland will have to take every chance offered to them - and realistically hope Australia spurn a lot of theirs - the referee's help may just prove vital. But if the Irish cannot rely on a Mr Paddy O'Brien, who can they rely upon?