It’s been a week full of controversy but the moment of truth has arrived for Joe Schmidt’s Ireland as they look to secure a place in the World Cup quarter-finals on Saturday with, weather permitting, a bonus point victory over Samoa. Can they do it?
It’s been another exciting week in Japan, full of great rugby but not short on controversy either. Things are getting serious as we head into the last round of pool games. Most of the big guns have already sealed their quarter-final slots, but Ireland are still waiting and need a bonus point victory over Samoa in Fukuoka on Saturday to guarantee their passage.
New Zealand, South Africa, England, France, Wales and Australia are all through to the last eight. The remaining two qualifiers will come from Pool A with two from Ireland, Scotland and Japan. It's all down to the weather with Ireland's game set to go ahead and a decision on the Japan v Scotland clash set for Sunday morning. The Scots will be very aggrieved if their game doesn't go ahead as they will be eliminated from the tournament and the hosts will progress as pool winners.
Amidst all this confusion, however, two things are certain – Ireland need a bonus point win over Samoa (LIVE on eir sport 1 from 10.45am this Saturday) to guarantee a quarter-final place, while a win or a draw for Japan against Scotland (EXCLUSIVELY LIVE on eir sport 1 on Sunday from 11.30am) will be enough to see them through. Ireland could even lose and still go through if Japan beat Scotland.
Samoa’s performance against Japan showed that they will be no pushovers and Ireland will need to be at their best to get the result they need. That means a flawless set-piece as a launching pad for the back line to do their work. We’ll have to boss the breakdown against a strong and very physical Samoan side and the number of handling errors we saw against Russia will have to be significantly reduced. Cometh the hour……..
No room to gamble
Schmidt has no room to gamble and has named a near-full strength team for the game with Rory Best, Cian Healy and Tadgh Furlong all returning to the front row. Iain Henderson and James Ryan form a formidable partnership in the second row in front of Tadgh Beirne, Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander, with Beirne getting the nod ahead of Peter O'Mahony and Rhys Ruddock.
Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton are named at half-back with Bundee Aki and the returning Robbie Henshaw in the centre. Jordan Larmour, Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale form the back three. Joey Carbery, Luke McGrath and O'Mahony are named on a strong bench alongside Andrew Porter, Niall Scannell, Dave Kilcoyne and Jean Kleyn.
Ideally, Schmidt would have liked to have rested a couple of his big guns ahead of what looks increasingly like a quarter-final against tthe mighty All Blacks. However, his hands were somewhat tied. If he named a weakened team and Ireland come up short, it would be a sad note to sign off on what has, let's not forget, been a very successful tenure.
Basically, this is a knock-out game. There is no other way of looking at it and Schmidt has been forced to go all in as the price of failure is simply too high. Now the players have to deliver for him. There is no room for the stuttering displays we saw against Japan and Russia – it is time for Ireland to prove themselves worthy of a place in the knock-out stages and re-establish the reputation that made them feared throughout the rugby world not so long ago.
The cancellation of the England v France Pool A decider means (apart from messing with the eir sport schedule) that England progress as pool winners and will most likely face Australia in the quarter-final while France face the prospect of a trickier game against Wales. Hagibis has also put paid to Italy's World Cup campaign as their game with New Zealand is off too. A win, however unlikely, for Conor O'Shea's side would have seen them through at the expense of the three-time winners (now that would have been the shock to end all shocks!).
It's a shame that it has come to this. It's a bad way to decide the fate of teams who have worked so hard to get there. Surely World Rugby should have had some contingency in place to play games even if they have to be delayed by 24-48 hours? They were the ones who chose Japan as the venue during typhoon season. It casts a shadow over the whole tournament and the buck stops with them. Each squad has 31 players so there is no reason why these matches couldn't be played, behind closed doors if necessary, to give a fair crack of the whip to everyone. If it cuts rest time betweeen games, so be it - the squads are big enough to cope.
More refereeing controversy
I mentioned suspect refereeing decisions last week and the threat that it poses to the future of the game globally. There was more controversy this week with South African Jaco Peyper’s handling of the Japan v Samoa game on Sunday. His injury time decision to penalise Samoa for a crooked feed to the scrum five yards from their own line which resulted in Japan scoring the try they needed to secure a crucial bonus point has drawn widespread condemnation.
It is the first time that the crooked feed (they all do it anyway!) has been penalised in the tournament so far and I would venture to suggest that it is one of very few penalties awarded for that offence in international rugby over the past few years. For it to come at such a crucial time undermines faith and confidence in the quality and impartiality of the officiating at what is supposed to be rugby's showcase event.
It was a decision with far-reaching implications and has left Scotland with a much more difficult task to qualify for the quarter-finals than before. If Ireland secure a winning bonus point on Saturday, they must secure one of their own on Sunday and prevent Japan from picking up a losing bonus in order to progress. They now have to score four tries which wasn’t the case before Peyper blew his whistle. It may also have implications for Ireland.
This situation can’t continue. It’s getting to the stage where supporters don’t ask who their team is playing, they ask ‘who’s the referee?’ followed by a collective sigh.
There was plenty of great action in the PRO14 over the weekend with excellent wins for Leinster, Munster and Connacht, while Ulster were on the wrong end of a 63-26 scoreline against Cheetahs in Bloemfontein. That’s two bonus point wins in succession for the South African side who look like they could be challenging for a play-off place come the end of the season. Glasgow’s early season stutters continued as they went down 25-21 at home to Scarlets.
Leinster were in imperious form at the RDS on Friday night, running in eight tries against Ospreys including a superb hat-trick for Ronan Kelleher. Interestingly enough, Devin Toner played the full 80 minutes and provided an excellent platform for quick possession as he dominated the line-out - Joe Schmidt take note!
Munster maintained their 100% record as they came from behind to earn a bonus point victory against Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth. It’s been a great start for Johann van Graan’s side, but they face their toughest task of the new season so far as they head to the high altitude surroundings of Bloemfontein to take on the in-form Cheetahs on Friday evening.
Meanwhile, Connacht secured their first victory of the campaign with a resounding 41-5 bonus point victory over last season’s surprise package Benetton, with Caolin Blade and Tom McCartney notching two tries apiece in a fine display at The Sportsgrounds. After a good showing in 2018-19 which saw them reach the quarter-finals of both the Challenge Cup and PRO14, they will be looking to go one better this time out and, based on this display, it’s not beyond them.
There are SIX more LIVE PRO14 games on eir sport this Friday and Saturday including Munster v Cheetahs (LIVE on eir sport 1 from 5.10pm on Friday), Leinster v Edinburgh (LIVE on eir sport 1 this Friday from 7.15pm), Southern Kings v Ulster (LIVE on eir sport 1 this Saturday from 2.55pm) immediately after the Ireland v Samoa game and Glasgow Warriors v Cardiff Blues (LIVE on eir sport 2 this Saturday from 7.30pm).
We are in for another bumper weekend of great rugby. Let’s hope the ill wind that is Typhoon Hagibis stays away and Ireland can get the result they need.
By Kieran O’Daly
****Remember, eir sport is the only place you can watch EVERY RWC 2019 game LIVE.