Roof falls in on fantasy Ireland

Australia 17 Ireland 16
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The Independent Online

Just what is it with the Irish and all their bad luck? For Dublin 1991 read Melbourne 2003, but don't do it too loudly if there happens to be a green shirt around.

Because as agonising as that one-point quarter-final heartstopper was all those years ago, this was just as much so - and not only because it was against the world champions in their own back yard. The carrot that dangled so provocatively for such long periods yesterday was a quarter-final with Scotland. But now it is France who await next week. That hardly seems fair after a game they monopolised, although you are not about to see the Irish bemoaning their misfortune.

"We could have won, probably should have won, but what can you do?" said their captain and master-motivator, Keith Wood. "We just can't go home depressed speculating on what might have been, because we've got a quarter-final to win here next week.'' It would take hypnosis for Irish minds not to drift into the fantasy land they were so close to reaching.

Indeed, if David Humphreys' drop-goal in the dying minutes had not drifted a fraction to the left, the celebrations would still be unfolding in Melbourne. As it is, there is still a feeling of high optimism for a team who now know how Argentina felt last week, to lose by the slimmest margin.

"This is not the end of our World Cup," said Wood, and if the Irish can raise their game to these levels again then those words may well prove prophetic. On this form the rampaging Irish forwards will match anyone. Just ask the Australian pack, who hardly saw the ball in a second half Ireland controlled from the off.

"That was as good a performance by an Irish pack as we've seen,'' said their coach Eddie O'Sullivan, who was keen to make sure that this would not be written off as "just another Irish binge of lunacy". It was much more than that, as the passion of old was complimented by the control of a new Ireland. Many will say that this precious commodity was lacking in the last quarter, when Ireland three times spurned the chance of kickable penalties to press for the line. But Wood did point out "we got those three points in the end". And besides, it's hard for even the most impassioned captain to let off a team under the cosh with the equivalent of a smack across the face. Wood could sense it was time for the killer blow.

Alas, it was beyond them, O'Sullivan blaming a penalty against an Irish scrum in the Wallaby 22 as the turning point. "That was a very tough call,'' he said. In hindsight, however, the damage was probably done in the opening 15 minutes, when Ireland allowed their opponents to sneak an eight-point advantage. Against Australia away that is a very tough call for anyone to answer. George Gregan had started his side's ball rolling with a cute drop-goal after 10 minutes, and when George Smith stole into the corner three minutes later it looked ominous.

The Irish did not have the wind and the rain that hit Melbourne yesterday to help them, the roof being closed on the Telstra Dome. At least this had the effect of making it even louder, as 20,000 Irishmen perfected the opposite of alchemy by turning gold into green. They had something to cheer when Ronan O'Gara kicked his first of two first-half penalties to stay in touch, but also plenty to groan about when the same right foot misbehaved with two errant penalties as well a wayward drop-goal. Elton Flatley had extended Australia's lead to 11-6 when the half-time whistle came, but only after each side had lost a man to the sinbin, when Shane Horgan ran all over Mat Rogers' head in a ruck and Rogers retaliated.

By now Ireland were finding their feet, and they playedlike a side possessed. Denis Hickie had limped off with a knee injury that may keep him out of the French tie, but his replacement, John Kelly, is just as adept at game-breaking. In the 50th minute, after another Flatley penalty had taken Australia to 14-6, Kelly somehow unloaded to Brian O'Driscoll, who in turn somehow found a gap to go over in the corner. "It was just a question of diving over really,'' said O'Driscoll with scandalous modesty. O'Gara converted and despite Flatley making the deficit four points with his third penalty the Blarney Army were far from finished.

Ten minutes of Irish pressure ensued - when they turned down those three kicks at goal - and when O'Driscoll split the posts 12 minutes from time the stage was set. But it was the stuttering Wallabies who took the curtain call, Eddie Jones proving how concerned he was by hauling off his outside-half, Stephen Larkham. O'Sullivan did likewise, looking for a match winner in Humphreys, but that drop-goal went wide.

What did Jones think as it came off Humphreys' boot? "Miss it," the Australian coach confessed. It really was as close as that.

Australia 17
Try: Smith
Pens: Flatley 3
Drop: Gregan

Ireland 16
Try: O'Driscoll
Con: O'Gara
Pens: O'Gara 2
Drop: O'Driscoll

Half-time: 11-6 Attendance: 53,371

Australia: M Rogers; W Sailor, M Burke (L Tuqiri, 64), E Flatley, J Roff; S Larkham (M Giteau, 68), G Gregan (capt); B Young, B Cannon (J Paul, 73), B Darwin (A Baxter, 51), D Giffin (D Vickerman, 64), N Sharpe, G Smith, P Waugh, D Lyons (M Cockbain, 60).

Ireland: G Dempsey; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, K Maggs (E Miller, 57-62), D Hickie (J Kelly, 40); R O'Gara (J Humphreys, 71), P Stringer; R Corrigan (M Horan, 68), K Wood (capt), J Hayes, M O'Kelly (D O'Callaghan, 54-60), P O'Connell (O'Callaghan, 75), S Easterby, K Gleeson, A Foley (Miller, 73).

Referee: P O'Brien (NZ).

'Perhaps we'll get revenge later'

We were very close to winning it. But we have a quarter-final next week and we are not going to be too het up. Perhaps we'll get the chance of revenge later in the tournament.
Ireland captain, Keith Wood

We were happy to pull through. They put us under a lot of pressure. It was a pretty good effort but there's lots of areas to improve. We hung in there.
Australia captain, George Gregan

We played every bit as well as Australia. Maybe we played a little bit better, we just didn't get the breaks. We believe we're good enough to get to the next round.
Ireland coach, Eddie O'Sullivan

They had large percentages of possession in our half and I thought our defence in the last 10 minutes won us the game.
Australia coach, Eddie Jones

That is the best display from an Irish pack we have seen since I don't know when.

For us to win is a good effort. It's quite significant because over the last 18 months we have lost those close games.

We are not happy to be facing the Irish. Since they beat us in the last Six Nations tournament they must be favourites.
France manager, Jo Maso