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Tuesday 12 December 2017

Brent Pope: Ireland can win the World Cup

Jared Payne scores his try
Jared Payne scores his try

Has there ever been a day like that in any sport?

After the games on Saturday I happened to meet an American tourist, a man who had attended numerous Super Bowl finals for his beloved American football team.

He had never seen a rugby match, much less been to a game, yet rather than pound the pavements in Dublin window shopping he told me that he spent the whole day glued to the television and enthralled at this wonderful new sport of rugby that he had just discovered.

It does not matter what sport you follow, or what country you support, this was a day that embraced all that is great about the game of rugby. A day where the glorious elements of speed, space and skill were on show. With 221 points and 27 tries, this was the way rugby should be played, win, lose or draw. But followers of the sport must ask this pertinent question - why is it that teams only play with this sort of flair and panache when they are forced to? It was a lesson for every coach in every country to encourage players to play what is in front of them at times, rather than an over reliance on physicality, structure and patterns.

For me, it was the best weekend's rugby I have ever seen, made all the more special because Ireland came out on top, just.

It could have just as easily been either Wales and England.

What an achievement this is for Joe Schmidt and his team.

More so given that rugby is not the national sport in this country, yet Ireland will now travel to the next World Cup ranked as the best team from the Northern Hemisphere and third on the world stage.

Going into the last minute of the game in Rome, Wales were setting Ireland a mountain to climb, having to beat Scotland by 28 points just to win and then at least give England some sort of target to chase.

A last-minute try by Italian winger Sarto suddenly reduced Wales points differential to 21 and gave Ireland a better chance.

In Irish minds, the win and the points were achievable as long as they could start the game well and - in Munster style - build the scores gradually rather than panic too early.

Ireland started according to Joe's script when 'Captain Fantastic' Paul O'Connell burst over after just five minutes. Then, after Johnny Sexton popped over an early penalty, the Irish team was halfway to its target after just 10 minutes, and Warren Gatland's smile was quickly being wiped off his face as Ireland upped the tempo.

Scotland were always going to have some purple patches in this match, and a try by their promising out-half Finn Russell showed that, as predicted, Scotland would not lie down easily. But this was an Irish side now perfectly balanced with both a power and width game.

Ball was suddenly flowing to the outsides with ease and Simon Zebo must have been envious given how much ball his replacement Luke Fitzgerald was getting. Ireland were systematically taking Scotland apart, either up front with the power game from the likes of O'Connell, Cian Healy, Peter O'Mahony and Seán O'Brien or the guile and speed of the Irish backline.

Whatever Joe Schmit said at halftime to some of his players meant that Ireland came out determined to leave no stone uncovered in their hunt of the Welsh target, to give everything they had and, like Wales had done to them, try and set England some sort of high mark.

Flankers O'Mahony and O'Brien were both immense in the second spell, bustling over the gain line at nearly every carry while Jamie Heaslip's last-minute tackle on Stuart Hogg will go down as one of the reasons for Ireland's amazing win.

Kudos must go to O'Connell, who has been inspirational over the whole championship, Johnny Sexton (back to his best after a blip in Cardiff) and big centre Jared Payne, who had his best game in green.

O'Brien and prop Healy put in world-class performances with O'Brien showing that his old dynamism is back.

All bodes well for Ireland's realistic assault on a World Cup title.

It's an old cliché but on this occasion, over all three games, rugby was the winner.

Congratulations Ireland on a fantastic win.

 

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