Andy Farrell and his players will only be thinking of a 17th successive win when Ireland meet Scotland in the Pool B finale at the Stade de France next Saturday (kick-off 9pm), but they’ll also be aware that a minimum of two match points is required to top the group and ensure qualification for the quarter-finals.
As expected, the pool of sharks – which contains three of the world’s top five-ranked sides – will go down to the wire, with Ireland, South Africa and Scotland all still in the mix to claim the two qualifying spots in the knock-out stages.
South Africa completed their pool programme with a 49-18 bonus point win over Tonga in Marseille last night, but that left them with a points differential of +117, inferior to Ireland’s +122.
This could prove significant were all three sides to finish level on 15 points – ie were Scotland to win with a bonus point and restrict Ireland to one bonus point next Saturday night in Paris. In a three-way tie, according to tournament rules provided Ireland lost by five points or less, they would top Pool B on overall points difference, while South Africa would edge out Scotland on the head to head. But a six or seven point defeat would see South Africa top the pool, and Ireland miss out to Scotland on the head to head.
Scotland will also go into next Saturday’s game knowing that a win by more than seven points will guarantee them a place in the quarter-finals at the expense of Ireland as, at the very least, they would then move level with Farrell’s side on 14 points and advance due to the head-to-head result, while South Africa would top the pool.
Ireland go into this final week of the pool stages with a clean bill of health following Jack Conan’s return to full training. They were also refreshed by a near four-day break in the aftermath of their bruising 13-8 win over the Springboks before reassembling last Wednesday evening and training fully on Friday and Saturday.
“All 33 trained, which is great and all in good form,” said manager Mick Kearney, “so [it is] a great position to be in after four weeks in France and a long preseason as well. To have 33 fit players is just fantastic from our point of view.”
Much is made of Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final glass ceiling, although they have only ever been knocked out in the pool stages once, namely in 2007.
“I am not going to answer that question,” said Scottish head coach Gregor Townsend when asked about Ireland’s World Cup history. “Ireland are the number one team in the world, they are on the back of 16 wins [in a row] so I’m sure they aren’t thinking about what has happened in previous tournaments.
“They have got a lot of confidence in how they have played over the last two or three years and they’ll take a lot of confidence from the last game they managed to get a win there [against South Africa].”
It’s also worth noting that Scotland have only once gone beyond the quarter-finals themselves. That was back in 1991 as co-hosts when they beat Japan, Zimbabwe and Ireland in the pool stages, and Samoa in the quarter-finals, before losing 9-6 to England in the semi-finals, when all their games were in Murrayfield.
Ireland are also within one more victory of equalling their longest winning sequence of nine in a row against Scotland, which was set in 1964. This current run of eight successive wins includes a 27-3 pool win in Yokohama four years ago, which means Scotland are seeking to avoid a group stage elimination for the third time in four World Cups.
So this will be akin to their final and, despite their recent record against Ireland, true to form their players sound very chipper about their chances of causing an upset.
“On our day we can beat anyone in the world,” said centre Cameron Redpath after their 84-0 win over Romania in Lille on Saturday, when Ben Healy scored one and converted 11 of Scotland’s dozen tries for a27-point haul.
“It’s about doing our stuff right and if we do that we really believe that we can turn over Ireland. We’re really excited.”
Hooker Ewan Ashman ventured: “We know if we put our processes in order then we will get that win and we’ll do what we need to do to get through to the quarter-finals.”
Scotland last beat Ireland by more than seven points in 2007, when winning a World Cup warm-up match at home by 31-21, and flanker Hamish Watson admitted: “It is going to be so tough. They [Ireland] are looking very good, number one team in the world and quite rightly so as they’ve been playing well for two years or even longer now.
“But a lot of the pressure will be on them. They’ll be expected to win, which is how we like it sometimes as well. We’ll prep well this week.
“We have got to try and win by eight points, which will be tough against a team we haven’t beaten for a long while. But on our day, when we play to the best of our abilities, we have got those games in our locker and we can beat those top teams.
“But we’ll have to play incredibly well and it will have to be one of our best performances. It will be a hell of a day if we can get it done.
“They are a great team and we’re looking forward to the challenge of playing the best team in the world. We know we have got enough in our team to beat them.”