Ireland stunned Australia 15-6 at Eden Park to set up a probable Springboks versus Wallabies quarter-final in Wellington.
The result was just perfect for New Zealanders as it means, barring an unlikely Samoan win against the Boks, one of Australia and South Africa will be eliminated before the semi-final.
The result also means a likely northern hemisphere versus southern hemisphere final, with Australia, New Zealand and South Africa now all in one side of the draw. Again the assumption is New Zealand will beat France next weekend at Eden Park. All that can change on the SA and Australian side of the draw is if Italy beat Ireland and the Boks lose for the first time against Samoa. Both results are unlikely.
Ireland, with lock Paul O’Connell at the heart of a magnificent forward effort, allowed Australia no quick ruck ball and without this the Aussies could never build enough momentum to threaten the Irish tryline.
Australian fullback Kurtley Beale was lethal when counter-attacking, but he fought a lone battle against the inspired Irish, who could have won by more.
The goalkicking on both sides was erratic with James O’Connor missing two kicks and Jonny Sexton missing with three, but the enforced introduction of seasoned flyhalf Ronan O’Gara (for the injured Gordon D’arcy) meant Ireland had the comfort of turning to O’Gara to close out the game with close range penalties.
The quality of Australia’s game is determined by quick phase ball and lineout solidity. The Wallabies had neither at Eden Park and the absence of opensider David Pocock and hooker Stephen Moore proved monumental in the context of the game.
Australia’s vulnerability in this tournament was always going to be depth in numbers and they could ill-afford to lose a player of Pocock’s class. Moore is also incredibly influential to the composure and leadership of the tight five and replacement Tatafu Polota-Nau, who brings power but little precision.
Ireland’s work rate, to the player, was tremendous and if O’Connell was the leader of the forwards then the loose-forward combination effort of Stephen Ferris, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip was monumental.
There weren’t many scrums in the first half, but there was a crucial period midway through the second half when Ireland had the ascendency close to the Australian line and O’Gara’s boot made it count.
Australia came close to scoring a minute from time, but Quade Cooper, who was lost without go forward ball, through an intercept pass that found Ireland right winger Tommy Bowe. The Irishman looked certain to score, but was chased down by O’Connor. The tackle was made but it was in vain. Ireland had the two-score advantage and there wasn’t enough time for Australia to score twice, let alone once.
The heavens had opened by then and it was as if God was Irish … or was that just tears of joy from every New Zealander?
By Mark Keohane at Eden Park, Auckland