Before I headed off on our recent Camino walk with my family, I laid a little wager on Ireland to beat Australia in their pool match at Eden Park at odds of 100/30. The docket came with me across North Spain and became valid currency on the morning of 17th September when our boys in Green walloped the Wallabies.
Lots of our ill-informed pundits were writing the team off after Ireland lost its 4 warm up games prior to the trip Down Under. This selection was wrong, that player wasn’t doing the business, key players hadn’t been fit enough to take part and morale was low! Declan Kidney has proven to all who watch the game that he has a very shrewd tactical brain and is a phenomenal man manager. His body language was never hangdog over the results – his aim was to give all prospective tourists a fighting chance to stake a place on the plane to New Zealand. These games were about match time and not about results.
Hardened by the tough physical challenges, the chosen players took each pool game as it came, having mentally targeted the Australia game as the key fixture since the draw two years earlier. Quietly confident, I rose to watch the game that Saturday morning and was delighted to see the way the forwards took the game to the Tri-Nations champions and as it unfolded, the Irish players had bossed their illustrious opponents in all areas of the pitch, including the scoreboard. Our economic troubles at home added an additional dimension to the game – the green army in the stands must have numbered 20,000 plus, many of them working down under and made the atmosphere like a home game for their green shirted heroes.
After giving some of the squad players a run out in the Russia game, it was all down to todays crunch match against Italy to decide who would progress with Australia to the quarterfinals. As usual, Kidney made a few changes – preferring both Murray and O Gara over Reddan and Sexton at half back. With a formidable pack, Italy were always likely to be a slippery banana skin for Ireland, having narrowly lost to the Irish earlier in the year. Indeed, they fronted up well and for most of the first half traded kick for kick to be 6 – 6, before a key incident probably turned the tide in Ireland’s favour. Experienced Italian prop Castrogiovanni had to leave the pitch with an injury and his replacement unbalanced the front row. With more regular possesion, the back row of Ferris, O Brien and Heaslip hunting as a unit and the backs stretching their legs, Ireland ran up 30 more points without reply, with 2 tries for birthday boy Keith Earls. The 16th man in the stand was also a definite advantage with close to 25,000 probably sporting green under the Otaga “dome of pain” in Dunedin!
As unlikely pool C winners, Ireland’s success has created a North/South divide with England, France, Wales and Ireland in one half and New Zealand, Argentina, Australia and South Africa in the other half of the quarterfinals. Having lost talisman out half, Dan Carter and doubts persisting about captain Richie Mc Caw, the hot favourite tag long weighing heavy on the All Black shoulders is getting heavier. This is fast becoming an open World Cup and Ireland will fear no-one as their confidence soars. Wales are next up on Saturday 8th October and are probably the next best prepared team in this section. The players on both teams are well used to playing each other at club and international level.
With my winnings from the Aussie defeat, I had another little punt on Ireland at 14/1 to win the Webb Ellis trophy – fingers crossed they will get past Wales and allow my heart to flutter a little faster in anticipation of greater glory ahead. Prepartion is the name of the game and no-one does it better than Declan Kidney, aided by the best pool of players ever collectively assembled wearing the green rugby shirt of Ireland. Is feidir linn.