Even though Ireland adopted a watching brief on the fourth weekend of the World Cup, it seemed as if everybody was still talking about them. It was not just Scottish players talking up their own chances in advance of Saturday night’s Pool B finale in Paris. Nothing new there. It’s been the All Blacks and the Springboks too, and that rascal Rassie Erasmus was still at it on Monday.
Whereas no one in the Ireland camp has been talking presumptively about a quarterfinal against New Zealand – whatever about some of their ex-players turned pundits –, even across in Pool A, it seemed as if the All Blacks coach Ian Foster was determined to launch a few grenades prematurely with that possible game in mind.
“If you look at the South Africa-Ireland game, it was a different game of rugby,” said Foster after their win over Italy last Friday night. “The ball was in play for 27 minutes throughout the whole game. It was a very stop-start game, very physical, very combative. You saw a different spectacle tonight and at some point the world has got to decide which game it would rather watch.”
He may have a point but this was a curious time to raise it. One would safely venture that only All Blacks players, coaches and fans continued to derive such glee from racking up the tries in their lopsided 96-17 “spectacle” against an Italian side that missed 31 tackles in what was another tough watch at this World Cup.
By contrast, the Ireland-South Africa game was probably the most compellingly intense and competitive match at the tournament so far.
But even more interesting was Foster speculating on the possibility of Ireland being knocked out on the final weekend of the pool stages in advance of the quarterfinals.
“Look at Ireland,” said Foster the night before Scotland played Romania. “If Scotland win two games then Ireland can miss out. It’s a tough World Cup.”
One would also venture that the All Blacks coach would not be displeased if this came to pass. Nor, evidently, is he alone.
When Erasmus begins a sentence with the words “with full humbleness, and there is no arrogance saying this”, your ears become additionally alert. Perish the thought, Rassie.
“But I’d rather sit here than be Ireland knowing that we’ve been number one in the world all the time and Scotland basically just have to beat them by eight points and they are out of the tournament.”
It’s fairly safe to say that there has never been a World Cup in which the head honchos of both the All Blacks and the Springboks have each speculated aloud as to the possibility of Ireland being knocked out of the tournament in the pool stages. And this on a weekend when Ireland weren’t even playing.
And it’s great, for it’s better to be talked about for once than not being talked about at all. It’s a backhanded compliment and recognition that Ireland have risen to number one in the world rankings for over a year with 16 successive victories.
Erasmus is right, to a point, in that the Boks pretty much have a foot and a half in the quarterfinals. The only scenario in which they could miss out would be if Scotland beat Ireland by more than 20 points while both sides register a try-scoring bonus.
This would ensure a three-way tie on 15 points, with Scotland topping Pool B on points difference, and Ireland edging out the Springboks by dint of having won the head-to-head meeting.
The idea of this happening, of Scotland winning by something in the region of 50-28, is fanciful in the extreme. Even more astonishing therefore was Erasmus giving credence, as Jacques Nienaber had done the day before, to this eventuality.
The latter suggested this would be match-fixing while Erasmus outlined this as one of “three or four very interesting scenarios”, albeit he practically urged Scotland to win by eight points or more and not even score a try.
While the media, the public and Rassie gobble up permutations, the Irish camp will block them away with straight bats this week. Gregor Townsend and the Scottish squad will know they have to beat Ireland by more than seven points to remain in the tournament. They need to be aware of this, but one doubts Andy Farrell, Paul O’Connell, Johnny Sexton et al, will make the various permutations much of an issue.
They’ll be mindful that two match points (ie a draw or two bonus points) or more will be sufficient to top the pool, whereas zero points will mean Ireland go out of the tournament.
One point may or may not be enough to advance. If Ireland lose by five points or less, they will go through to the knock-out stages. If Ireland lose by six points or more, and Scotland win with a bonus point, Farrell’s team will also go home. But any bonus point, coupled with Scotland not scoring four or more tries, would also suffice for Ireland.
Of course, Farrell and his team will simply be targeting another win in succession to maintain momentum into the knock-out stages. The notion of Ireland’s best ever side being evicted before then by Scotland, after beating the reigning world champions in an epic, is almost too grim or shocking to contemplate. Yet the threat is real. Scotland are primed for their biggest game of the last four years.
Ireland have won the countries’ last eight meetings, and 12 of the last 13, the exception being in 2017 at Murrayfield, when there was the notorious late bus. But the penultimate leg of this year’s Grand Slam in Edinburgh looked particularly edgy at the halfway point, and likewise the fourth leg of the 2009 Slam was a taut bare-knuckle ride.
The last time Scotland beat Ireland outside of Edinburgh was in 2010, when they were also cast in the role of party spoilers as Declan Kidney’s side sought to sign off their time in Croke Park with a Triple Crown. Ireland were the better side but adopted a risky, high-tempo game from the start, left chances behind and were mugged 23-20 thanks to a late Dan Parks penalty. Every Irish player and coach involved that day probably remains infuriated by that almost frivolous performance and defeat.
But of all the weekends, this is not the one to have regrets after a game against Scotland.