Improved Ireland qualify for Rugby World Cup quarter-finals
Johnny Sexton to the fore as Ireland ease past Samoa despite Bundee Aki red card
Ireland’s Jordan Larmour on his way to scoring a try against Samoa. Photograph: Jayne Russell/Inpho
Mission accomplished, and with a good deal less drama than might have been expected, not least when Bundee Aki’s 29th-minute red card meant Ireland had to play the last 50 minutes with 14 men. But, already leading 21-5, they made light of their numerical disadvantage.
The bonus point required to earn a place in the quarter-finals was secured by Johnny Sexton’s second try before half-time and once the pack rolled up their sleeves again on the resumption for Jordan Larmour to score, the result was never remotely in doubt. They actually won the last 50 minutes 26-0.
With Tokyo being battered by Storm Hagibis – by kick-off here 800,000 households had been evacuated, 60 people had been injured and one had passed away, with the worst of the storm still to come – it seems inevitable that the Japan-Scotland game will be cancelled.
In that case, Japan will join Ireland on 16 points but top Pool A on the head-to-head, and so Joe Schmidt’s team would then face the back-to-back champions New Zealand next Saturday in Tokyo.
Although this will be remembered as the night when Aki became only the third Irish player to be sent off, after Jamie Heaslip and CJ Stander, ironically it was Samoa’s comparative ill-discipline which went a considerable distance toward shaping this seven tries to one victory.
Loose as gooses at the breakdown, the 17-5 penalty count continually gave the Irish pack set-piece platforms in the Samoan 22.
They used it to good effect too, converting most of their 100 per cent return from 16 lineouts in opposition territory as well as seven scrums, and the accuracy of the first two men in after the tackle was back to this team’s trademark best.
James Ryan set much of the dynamic and clinical tone up front, while Stander was simply immense, with 22 carries for 29 hard-earned metres and a try after taking over the captaincy when Rory Best was called ashore. Tadhg Beirne made a major impact too with some exceptional lines in his 15 carries.
Behind them, Conor Murray and Sexton were at their imperious best, running the show supremely. Larmour, in particular, looked razor sharp, with one try-scoring assist and a finish, but with a man down Ireland were perhaps understandably more restrictive in their approach. But Joe Schmidt and his coaches have some interesting decisions to make, not least in the backrow and back three, even if once again their midfield has probably been chosen for them.
The in-goal area churned up a little when the Irish pack did some light scrummaging practice pre-match but, helped by no rain, the pitch held up pretty well after all.
On a breezy, less humid and warm evening, with temperatures in the low 20s, allowing for the awful re-laid pitch, the conditions were at least the most familiar Ireland had faced in the World Cup thus far.
Green jerseys were liberally sprinkled around the compact 22,000-capacity stadium and the Blarney Army’s response, as the Irish squad went into a huddle, was the night’s first rendition of The Fields of Athenry.
If nothing else Ireland have been starting games well and this was no exception. After two kicks by Murray and a fine return punt by Larmour, Ireland earned a 40-metre lineout from the game’s first aerial dual. Sexton tested Ah See Tuala in the air and then spiralled a 40-metre penalty to within five metres of the Samoan line.
Best hit Iain Henderson, the maul was set up quickly and peeled around the front, with Stander, Tadhg Furlong and Josh van der Flier driving a path for Best to plunder his second try of this World Cup. Sexton landed a fine conversion from near the right touchline.
Referee Nic Berry deduced that although there was a high degree of danger, the mitigating factor was that Stockdale dipped significantly before contact. Otherwise Lam would have been red-carded.
Ireland made them pay too when Murray was tackled off the ball by Jack Lam and Sexton again went up the line. The pack kept it tight until Aki made a good carry, whereupon Furlong steamed onto Murray’s pass and burst through the tackles of opposing tighthead Michael Alaalatoa, centre Alapati Leiua and lock Teofilo Paulo for a remarkable finish. Sexton again converted.
Leiua was fortunate not to be yellow card when deliberately knocking on an attempted skip pass by Aki before Ryan brilliantly stole an attacking Samoan throw. Keith Earls reclaimed Murray’s box-kick before the scrumhalf found a good touch and then Ireland struck again.
Putting plenty of width on the ball, there was even a hint of footwork from Stander as well as a return offload to Murray before Larmour straightened through the tackles of Jack Lam and Ed Fidow with a show-and-go and typically deft footwork, before a one-handed pass across his body gave Sexton, supporting on the inside, an untouched run to the line. Again he converted.
Alas, handling errors crept into Ireland’s game, and they proved costly too. First Cian Healy slightly over-ran what was a loose pass in any case by Murray. When Robbie Henshaw was penalised for going off his feet, Samoa built up a head of steam for Jack Lam to power through the tackles of Stander and Van der Flier for the try. Henry Taefu missed the conversion but then came Aki’s sending off.
Ironically it emanated from Henshaw’s loose pass over the head of Stockdale, the ball bouncing towards Aki on the left wing. Helped by the bounce, Tuala beat Aki to the ball and flicked it back. Ulupano Seuteni gathered and in the split second that followed Aki – perhaps initially trying to reclaim the ball – caught the Samoan outhalf high with his left shoulder.
It all happened in an instant and several of the Samoan players showed Aki sympathy. There was almost certainly no malice. But unfortunately for Aki, Berry saw it as a high hit with a degree of danger and, although Seuteni dipped, without sufficient mitigating factors, and so he brandished a red card. A concussed Seuteni also left the field, not to be replaced.
Aki’s World Cup could well have been ended in that moment, and the risk of Ireland’s following suit was seriously heightened. But they weathered another Samoan storm and forced a penalty against serial offender Jack Lam to go up the line again.
Samoa weathered the first siege but from a rock solid five-metre scrum, Murray went blind to Sexton who showed and then straightened for his second try. Ireland had steadied themselves and skipped into the dressingroom with a 26-5 interval lead.
Within a few minutes of the resumption, Samoa gave Ireland another lineout in their own 22 when Seilala Lam went off his feet, and when Paulo came in from the side Ireland went back to the corner again.
Samoa survived two lineout mauls and two five-metre scrums before Murray brilliantly picked out Larmour on the right touchline with a bullet left-to-right pass for try number five. With his last act before being replaced, Sexton nailed another fine conversion.
After Stander won a superb turnover, continual Samoan ill-discipline in the face of concerted pressure on their line culminated in TJ Ioane being binned for repeated offences. Ireland’s attack had narrowed now, which was disappointing as it would have been nice to see more of Joey Carbery and the in-form outside backs. The route one approach almost yielded a sixth try from Jean Kleyn but he was held up.
The heavy lifting continued after a big Irish scrum, almost literally when Andrew Porter effected one clear-out before Stander, having started the attack when blasting off an attacking scrum, deservedly plundered his try. Carbery made another difficult conversion look easy.
Ireland move on to the quarter-finals, and probably the daunting prospect of facing the All Blacks, but will do so feeling altogether better about themselves.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 4 mins Best try, Sexton con 7-0; 9 mins Furlong try, Sexton con 14-0; 21 mins Sexton try, con 21-0; 26 mins J Lam try 21-5; 39 mins Sexotn try 26-5; (half-time 26-5); 48 mins Larmour try, Sexton con 33-5; 65 mins Stander try, Carbery con 40-5; 70 mins Stander try, Carbery con 47-5.
IRELAND: Jordan Larmour (Leinster); Keith Earls (Munster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), Jacob Stockdale (Ulster); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster); Cian Healy (Leinster), Rory Best (Ulster, capt), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Iain Henderson (Ulster), James Ryan (Leinster); Tadhg Beirne (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), CJ Stander ( Munster).
Replacements: Andrew Porter (Leinster) for Furlong (45 mins), Niall Scannell (Munster) for Best, Joey Carbery (Munster) for Sexton (both 51), Luke McGrath (Leinster) for Murray (53), Dave Kilcoyne (Munster) for Healy, Jean Kleyn (Munster) for (both 57), Peter O’Mahony (Munster) for Beirne (60), Andrew Conway (Munster) for Henshaw (62).
Sent off: Aki (29 mins).
SAMOA: Tim Nanai-Williams (Clermont Auvergne); Ah See Tuala (Northampton), Alapati Leiua (Bristol), Henry Taefu (Western Force), Ed Fidow (Worcester Warriors); Ulupano Seuteni (Boredeaux Begles), Dwayne Polataivao (Unattached); Logovii Mulipola (Newcastle Falcons), Seilala Lam (Perpignan), Michael Alaalatoa (Crusaders); Teofilo Paulo (Unattached), Kane Le’aupepe (Hurricanes); Chris Vui (Bristol), TJ Ioane (London Irish), Jack Lam (Bristol, capt).
Replacements: Tusi Pisi (Toyota Industries Shuttles) for Seuteni (29 mins), Ray Niuia (Highlanders) for S Lam, Jordan Lay (Bristol) for Mulipola (both 46), Kieron Fonotia (Scarlets) for Fidow, Paul Alo-Emile (Stade Francais) for Alaalatoa, Piula Faasalele (Perpignan) for Paulo (all 51), Josh Tyrell (Oyonnax) for Ioane, Pele Cowley (Ponsonby) for Polataivao (both 71).
Sinbinned: Seilala Lam (6-16 mins), TJ Ionae (59-69).
Referee: Nic Berry (Australia).