Well, unfortunately, Ireland’s World Cup dream has come to an end. It looked a real possibility that Ireland would advance past the quarter-final stages and reach its first semi-final, ever. Alas, it was not to be. The vaunted Irish team went out to a much less experienced Welsh side, but a Welsh side that are on a real roll at the moment. Wales put in one of the most dominant performances I have seen, and if they can keep to that style they have a real chance of succeeding in this World Cup.
Ireland went into the match as slight favourites. They had finished top of their pool, with great wins over Australia and Italy. They had also beaten Wales in 9 of the last 12 encounters, and the last game had ended controversially. Wales had come 2nd in their pool, but had come very close to beating South Africa, and scored great wins over Samoa and Fiji. They were on a real roll as well. The match seemed to be 50-50, but Wales scored after 2 mins., and from then on, Ireland’s dream seemed to become a nightmare. Wales seemed to have an answer for everything Ireland tried, and turned their own tactics against them. We should have tried to target the Welsh back-row, and half-backs (9 and 10). But instead, Wales, masterfully, cut off O’Gara, and O’Brien and Heaslip were completely nullified. O’Gara, especially, had one of his worst games in an Irish jersey. Everything he tried failed to work out, and he seemed indecisive at several times during the game. Ireland’s tactics seemed to be poor as well. They had 3 chances at a penalty early in the game, and every time, they decided to run the ball, instead of kicking. Wales defence kept them out, and we were denied points. The conditions may have had something to do with it (it was very windy), but it’s basic sense to not try something repeatedly, if it’s not working. Wales were also playing with an inexperienced full-back, and he was only targeted once. He should have been showered with kicks to put off his confidence.
Ireland finally got a penalty around the 30-min. mark, and the half ended with Wales 10-3, in the lead. Ireland cut a try (through Earls) just at the start of the 2nd half, and all of a sudden, it was 10-all. The tide seemed to have turned, and Ireland now needed to pile on the points. Unfortunately, it was Wales who proceeded to score, and after 2 tries, in 10 mins, it was all over. Wales dominated the rest of the half, and the game finished 22-10. It was a brilliant performance by Wales, all around. Jamie Roberts, in the centre, cut the Irish back-line to pieces. A young Welsh side (most in the early/mid twenties) played with a maturity belying their years, and should be a team to watch in the future. Indeed, if they can keep up this kind momentum, we could be looking at another Welsh Golden Era.
The other 3 quarter-finals were exciting contests as well. France overcame England, to win, 19-12. England seemed the superior side going into the match, whereas France seemed on the verge of imploding. I thought that controversy would be too much for the French squad to deal with, but, as they so often do, they managed to turn it around when it really mattered. They were helped on the day, by poor play from England (their defence was laughable at time, and Jonny Wilkinson had a nightmare. It seems to be time for him to finally hang up his boots!).
Australia v South Africa had a bit of roll-reversal. The Springboks were running the ball, while the Wallabies were left defending. Usually it’s the other way around. The Springboks didn’t really get anywhere with the ball unfortunately, as the Wallabies managed to scuffle all their chances. Despite having much more of the ball, they failed to convert their possession into points, and the Wallabies hung on to win, 11-9.
In the final quarter-final, Argentina seemed to be on a bit of a hiding, against New Zealand. The All Blacks had failed to really light up the tournament, up ‘til then, and it seemed they would finally do so against the Pumas. In another shocker, Argentina managed to stay with them for 60 mins of the game, until New Zealand finally piled on the pressure before the end. The All Blacks finished, 33-10, but the score was in no way a fair reflection on the match. The New Zealand performance will have done nothing to ease the fears of their supporters, who are used to seeing their team underperforming in the knock-out stages. And all credit to Argentina, who kept up with one of rugby’s best teams for nearly 80% of the game. This will do them well when they join the Tri-Nations next year. Another thing to worry the All Blacks, and their fans, is that they haven’t found a suitable replacement for Dan Carter, their mercurial out-half. That’s the problem with having such a star on the team. Great when he’s fit, he’s the centre of the team, but he leaves such a gap when he’s injured, and there’s no-one to replace him.
Both semi-finals should be superior contests. Wales will need to retain their form to progress. This is the stage when the inexperience of their team might come to the fore. None of these players will have come anywhere near a World Cup semi-final, and their big-day nerves might be their undoing. The French won’t have that problem, having won a semi-final, in both 1987, and 1999 (Wales got to a semi-final in 1987, but were resoundingly beaten). None of the current French players, of course, but Frances’ great record will give them a boost. The odds-makers actually give Wales a better chance, with them 11/2, to win the cup. France are at 15/2. I’d like to see Wales get to the final.
Australia v New Zealand, will be an epic. Ironically, Australia have the better record. The 2 teams have faced each other twice before in World Cup semi-finals, and the Wallabies have won both (in 1991, and 2003). Both were quite dominant performances as well. Australia have the better World Cup record, overall as well. They’ve reached 3 finals, and won it twice (’91 and ’99), whereas New Zealand have reached 2 and one once (’87). Australia also have the nod at out-half, where New Zealand will be vulnerable. There’s also questions about the fitness of Richie McCaw, who’s another talismanic figure. And they’ve lost their star full-back, Muliana. This hasn’t affected their odds, though, with the All Blacks at 4/7. The Wallabies are at 9/2. Will this be the year that New Zealand finally do it? Finally win the tournament, after more than 20 years of failure?
Whatever happens, whichever teams qualify, it will be a great final.
Ireland have had a great tournament, overall. They came into the World Cup on the back of a disastorous summer-series of matches. It seemed that Ireland would be lucky to advance past the pool-stages. They seemed on route to a hiding against Australia, and not that much better against Italy. They completely turned it around, though, and shocked the rugby world by beating the Wallabies. They managed to retain their form against Italy, and came out top of their pool, for the first time ever. The players had mixed performances. Those who came back as better players include, Keith Earls (I questioned his selection at times, but he was Ireland’s top try scorer), Kearney and Bowe gave some good performances, and Murray was the Irish find of the tournament. He came out as the 3rd choice scrum-half, but returns as no.1, and should be a star for many years to come. In the forwards, the front row shone, (special mention to Rory Best, who was heroic against Wales, after spending most of the week as doubtful), although they were outclassed against superior props, in Jenkins and Jones (who are probably the 2 best props in the world at the moment). O’Brien was another find (though he too was outclassed against the Welsh). Ferris was great as well.
Players that had poor/quiet World Cups: we hardly saw anything of Geordan Murphy, or McFadden. Trimble didn’t get a look in. Both out-halves weren’t great. Sexton’s kicking was dreadful. And, both Boss and Reddan hardly featured. In the forward’s, O’Connell had a mixed tournament, and Heaslip was disappointing. He hasn’t been at his best for a while now. Let’s hope he can improve. Ireland should go in to next year’s Six Nations with a bit of confidence, and build on the, generally, good performances in the World Cup.