Any joy Scotland felt after wriggling through against Fiji yesterday would have been dampened by the sight two hours later of Australia and Ireland fighting for the right to tear the Scots apart in the quarter-finals.
It may sound cruel, but what was at stake in the Aussie-Irish match was the easiest passage through to the semi-finals. I hope the Scots take exception to that assumption, because their only hope is to come out fighting and to face Australia with flat-out commitment and optimism. Those were the qualities that almost got the Irish the shock victory of the tournament. There is no doubt they were the better side and they came so close to winning it.
In fact, when they look back at the second-half it was their own fault they didn't get the vital score. It was unlucky that David Humphreys' attempt at a drop-goal drifted narrowly wide but they might have scored a try had Ronan O'Gara taken a different option in a previous attack. Ireland won a ruck near the line and Peter Stringer sucked in Stephen Larkham before passing to O'Gara, who gave an inside ball instead of giving it out where they had men over.
These are the split-second decisions that can make the difference. Certainly, the Australians did not permit any other openings in an excellent second-half defensive display under great Irish pressure. There were one or two occasions when the Irish elected not to kick penalties at goal but they wanted to keep up the pressure, and I don't think they lost because of that. The Irish will be disappointed, but the performance will send them towards France with every chance of an upset.
This was an object lesson in how to play World Cup rugby. They did not bottle out by choosing a second-string team and saving their best effort for the quarter-final. Their narrow win over Argentina had guaranteed their progress and released them from what Keith Wood called the shackles of group play. They relished the opportunity of giving themselves a fighting chance by taking the battle to the Aussies. That's the attitude you need and although they missed out they now have masses of confidence to take into the fray against France.
It does help to have warriors like Wood at the head of everything. He had another storming game, although I thought he was edged in the Man of the Match stakes by lock Paul O'Connell. His steals gave Ireland a tremendous advantage in the line-outs. Ireland also played the territorial game well and forced an uncommonly high number of 10 Aussie turnovers.
It was good to see Brian O'Driscoll playing more like his old self. He took his try well with a great piece of acceleration and lovely balance before he swooped over. He also snapped over a valuable drop-goal and defended stoutly. I'm sure we're going to see an even bigger game from him before Ireland are finished.
Australia will be relieved to have got away with a win but that's typical of them. They don't instil confidence in their play but they manage to win.
They'll be worried about how much trouble the Irish pack gave them. Their front five never looked comfortable and it was revealing that when Ireland once had a penalty close to the line they went for the scrum.
Although Australia's defence was world-class their kicking out of hand was poor - it's one part of Larkham's game that remains a weakness. I wouldn't write the Aussies off, but they still have a lot of work to do.
In contrast, South Africa are looking more useful as the tournament progresses. Against Samoa they'd obviously learned from England's experience and blitzed them early on. The Springboks had tightened everything up in their game and were extremely physical, piling in with a few big hits.
I think the Samoans had played their final against England. They attacked with some exciting stuff and put on plenty of pressure but the South African defence never really let them back into the game. They were just out-muscled by a team who could prove quite a handful in the knockout stage.
Fiji can count themselves unlucky that they didn't go through at the expense of Scotland. They missed chances in the first half when Scotland couldn't handle their speed. Rupeni Caucaunibuca scored two brilliant tries and it's sad to see him go out of the competition.
Scotland rode their luck and were fortunate whenFiji lost a forward to the sin-bin just before Tom Smith scored from a driving line-out.
The Scots have one chance left to muster a last brave effort and they could have been set no finer example than by the Irish.Reuse content