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Peter Bills: Key O'Driscoll tackle set tone as final fantasy becomes real goal

ONE tackle, a single crushing hit set up Ireland's Rugby World Cup quarter-final clash with Wales this coming Saturday.

That one tackle at the start of the second half against Italy yesterday defined this entire Ireland team.

It was made by Irish captain Brian O'Driscoll and it laid down not just a marker for others to follow, but the path to the quarter-finals.

The second half was only 29 seconds old when Ronan O'Gara hoisted an up and under above the Italian defence. Full-back Andrea Masi was underneath it and took the ball. But within a micro second, Masi was hurled to the ground by the sort of tackle that defines men, teams and their ambitions.

If ever a single tackle spoke of Ireland's steel-like will to dominate the second half, to go on and crush Italy with ruthless execution, it was that one. It must have sent a shudder not just through the body of Masi but the entire Italian team.

It set the tone for the entire last 40 minutes. Italy were shut out of the game by the excellence of Ireland's play and no-one who saw that hammering tackle by O'Driscoll could have missed the point.

It said to his team-mates, 'this is the way, get down to the job and see it through. Leave no stone unturned, do not drop your focus or intensity'.

That is precisely what Ireland did. They produced one of their best, most focused and ruthless performances in decades in that second half at Dunedin. Ireland teams down the years have enjoyed many memorable moments but I doubt whether any have given such a complete performance for an entire match, especially in the last 40 minutes.

There were heroes all over the field in green jerseys. The forwards mastered their Italian rivals, the half-backs were beautifully on song -- Conor Murray's passing was superb -- and the backs looked dangerous every time they touched the ball.

It was superlative rugby, in which virtually all mistakes were eliminated and the searing, white hot pressure on the Italians was never released.

Italy went into this match genuinely believing they could beat Ireland and reach the quarter-finals for the first time in their history.



Mission

Yet they never bargained on an Ireland side that resembled men on a mission. The clinical nature of Ireland's play was exemplary. They took their tries, all of them in the second half, with a brisk efficiency that resembled a top level CEO making tough decisions at his desk.

I admired this performance. It was one of the great displays by any country, never mind just a northern hemisphere nation. There was a ferocious will to win.

It also told the remaining countries at this tournament that Ireland believe they are good enough to make a major impact at this World Cup.

Now, Ireland's legions of supporters have let enthusiasm and hope get the better of them before. So counsel caution. But you can only write about what you see in front of you and, on this display, Ireland could well reach the World Cup final.

That's not to say they will because Wales represent a huge threat, but the men in green could get there.