Ireland’s 45-7 victory over Samoa was excellent when weighted with the pre-match considerations. The pitch issues, pressure borne of expectation and also the kerfuffle with regard to whether Japan’s game against Scotland would go ahead and the potential ramifications in terms of qualification for the quarter-finals dominated the build-up to this final pool match.
These issues could have served to distract but Joe Schmidt’s squad were unblinking in their focus even when having to cope with being a player down for almost two thirds of the match following Bundee Aki’s sending off after 29 minutes.
There was a great deal to admire about the manner in which Ireland set about their task, the dominance of the set piece and in particular the potency of the lineout maul.
The shape of substance of the team’s attacking patterns was impressive, the appreciation of when to draw in Samoan tacklers only to tip on passes just before impact and thereby allowing the next carrier an easier passage over the gain-line and the promise of quick ruck ball.
When Ireland did play the game with tempo, they were very effective in creating chances. Their willingness to offload in the tackle was a key component in a couple of tries.
There was much to admire in the collective performance, albeit acknowledging several high calibre individual performances - everyone including the bench acquitted themselves well - from man-of-the-match Jordan Larmour, through Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Tadhg Furlong, the sustained excellence of the backrow, Tadhg Beirne, Josh van der Flier and an outstanding CJ Stander.
Schmidt needed several of his marquee names to step up and they duly obliged but it wasn’t all bouquets and garlands.
There was a 17-minute spell in the second half when Ireland pitched camp on the Samoan line only to fall victim to pedestrian, one-out plodding around the fringes. The latch and trundle has had a low success percentage from an Irish perspective in the Rugby World Cup, yet it remains a 'go-to' ploy from close range.
While acknowledging that they were a player down it doesn’t fully excuse how narrow Ireland’s orientation became. In those circumstances they need to present several viable options from which to attack, a couple of pods, one close-in and another further away to stretch the defence and make it easier to employ footwork as well as power.
The other minor cavil was some shoddy passing that could have been punished by better opponents. Ireland conceded a try from one pass going to ground and another misdirected one was a forerunner to Aki’s sending off.
That said, it would be churlish not to acknowledge an overwhelmingly positive and laudable effort from the team and replacements, especially Andrew Porter.
Sexton’s first try underlines the fluency that Ireland can create in attack. Stander’s offload to Murray was the catalyst for the initial thrust, Larmour’s arcing run and inside pass leaving the Irish outhalf with an easy run-in. All four players made good decisions; they were alert and sharp to what was possible, and in the case of the first three, executed the play beautifully.
There were numerous other examples from forwards and backs and the majority of the time, the player in possession invariably took the right option. Given the weight and ferocity of the Samoan tackling, particularly in the first half an hour, that was gold star material from an Irish perspective, particularly if they can replicate it going forward.
The Australian referee had an excellent match generally speaking that bucked the trend of the officiating in the Rugby World Cup to date. From the moment he adjudicated that Stander had not become disengaged from the lineout maul in the build-up to Rory Best's try after being invited to look at the incident by the TMO Rowan Kitt, he exuded a calm authority.
It was very evident in the manner in which he dealt with two of the bigger moments in terms of the yellow card for Samoan hooker Seilala Lam and Aki’s red card. He was methodical in outlining his interpretation of the two incidents, only then calling for any dissension from his fellow officials and then explained the decisions clearly and concisely to the respective players concerned and their captains.
In terms of the letter of the law he was also correct on both occasions. The only negative was that once again the offside line and the breakdown continue to be ruled indiscriminately. Samoa conceded seven penalties within sight of their line before TJ Ioane got the line, while they were also guilty of not rolling away after a tackle on numerous occasions.
Consistency of interpretation is the one thing that players and coaches crave and it has been conspicuously lacking throughout the tournament.
Everyone acknowledges the importance of the World Player of the Year in terms of shaping and directing Ireland’s patterns but the consistency of quality with which Sexton traditionally delivers is hugely impressive.
Two tries was a fitting reward for the manner in which he managed the game, his place-kicking on a dodgy surface, noteworthy. There were a couple of minor aberrations, one penalty kicked into touch and goal and a no-look inside pass that was picked off by Samoan captain Jack Lam but when weighted against his overall contribution are rendered inconsequential.
He is the lightning rod for Ireland’s better performances, his ability to read the game, courage on the gain line, all round kicking and range of passing irreplaceable at present.
Conor Murray took pressure off his outhalf today with a display that was more reminiscent of his prodigious talent including a superb pass for Larmour's try, while Joey Carbery ran the game capably and his neat grubber kick for the Andrew Conway try underlined his vision and touch.
Horses for courses
The back three and the backrow are likely to differ depending on whether Ireland face New Zealand or South Africa in the quarter-finals. Larmour and Andrew Conway are the form players in the outside backs, while Rob Kearney, Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale have been first choice when fit and available. South Africa kick more so aerial prowess is important while their back three are relatively small and can be vulnerable in the air.
The Springboks picks three secondrows in their back five in the pack and Ireland might be obliged to match that power game, initially. Against New Zealand, speed to, and an ability to slow down ball at the breakdown are more cherished qualities. Schmidt has some interesting decisions to make, so too at centre.
For 24 hours Ireland can luxuriate in a victory over Samoa and a job well done; Aki’s misfortune notwithstanding.