Ireland have never made it past the quarter-final stage of a Rugby World Cup, but on Sunday Joe Schmidt’s side proved they should not be discounted this time around.
A blistering first-half display was enough to topple Scotland 27-3, arguably Ireland’s toughest rivals in Pool A, though hosts Japan will be no pushovers.
Heading into the tournament as the world’s number one side seemed somewhat undeserved based on Ireland’s performances, with Schmidt’s side having failed to impress in a poor Six Nations campaign, while they were hammered by England – among the favourites to challenge holders New Zealand – in a warm-up match last month.
Successive victories over Six Nations champions Wales showed the talent was still there, even if this World Cup may have come a year too late for the men in green.
But with Schmidt determined to end his tenure on a high and the quality in his squad evident, Ireland – inspired by brilliant performances from stalwarts Johnny Sexton and Rory Best – made their case in emphatic fashion in a rainswept Yokohama.
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) September 22, 2019
SEXTON REIGNS SUPREME
Sexton’s injury at World Cup 2015 ultimately proved a decisive blow, with the fly-half missing the quarter-final defeat to Argentina in Cardiff.
He has struggled with injuries throughout 2019, having been taken off with a head injury in Ireland’s Six Nations clash with Scotland in January before missing much of the World Cup preparation due to a thumb injury.
Assistant coach Matt Taylor promised the press Scotland would “smash” the World Rugby Player of the year, but Sexton showed no signs that warning had got to him, putting in a superb display, organising Ireland’s defence and entrusting the forwards to do the rest.
The 34-year-old did, however, sustain a thigh injury, with Conor Murray taking over kicking duties and – should Ireland manage to beat Japan – Schmidt may be tempted to wrap his star man, who was subbed off before the hour, in cotton wool for the rest of the pool stage.
RORY BACK AT HIS BEST
Rory Best’s captaincy has come under scrutiny in the build-up to the World Cup, though the 37-year-old – who will retire after the tournament – proved that there is still plenty of life in this old dog.
His 12th-minute try, a typically powerful drive following a lineout, cast aside any doubts over Ireland’s approach and the skipper, aided by Sexton, led by example throughout at the International Stadium.
He became the fourth Irish captain to score in a World Cup match, while Best is also the fourth oldest player, behind Diego Ormaechea, Fakahau Valu and Nick Easter, to go over in the history in the tournament.
4 – Rory Best is the fourth player to score a try in a @rugbyworldcup match as Ireland captain, after Brian O’Driscoll (3), Keith Wood and Dion O’Cuinneagain. Skipper.#RWC2019 #IREvSCO pic.twitter.com/lLJQ4zzmYl
— OptaJonny (@OptaJonny) September 22, 2019
NEW BLOOD AT THE BACK
“Their enthusiasm is something that’s contagious, their ability to get themselves into the game,” Schmidt said of Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway and Jacob Stockdale, who were selected to make their World Cup debuts.
Without experienced duo Keith Earls and Rob Kearney, who were not risked as they recover from injuries, Schmidt had no doubt over the ability of his new-look back-line and his confidence was not misplaced.
All three players were composed in possession and in the ruck, with Conway adding further gloss when he raced over for a bonus-point securing try just before the hour.
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