Friday, November 24, 2006

Let's stage the World Cup now, jokes O'Driscoll

Ireland proved beyond all reasonable doubt yesterday that they deserve to be regarded as the second best team in the world at present.

Eight days after running South Africa ragged, they battered the Wallabies into submission. Eddie O'Sullivan's side made it abundantly clear amid a November storm that their epic triumph over the Springboks was no fluke, no flash in the pan.

With just 10 months to go until the World Cup they are reaching the height of their powers and on this evidence, only one nation can live with them.

What a terrible pity that when Brian O'Driscoll and Co play their last ever match at Lansdowne Road next weekend, New Zealand are not the opposition.

Because if the All Blacks are blazing a trail at the summit of the international game, Ireland are gamely giving chase.

It would be entirely fitting for the Kiwis to end their latest European crusade in Dublin, for a match which could be billed as the very best of north v south.

They would start as favourites, but as an experienced team who have several strings to their bow and ample stocks of confidence, Ireland would take them to the very edge.

Instead, it is the Pacific Islands who must try to stem the green tide and they cannot fancy their chances.

Given the trials and tribulations experienced by England and France in recent weeks, O'Sullivan's team are Europe's form horse - the best bet for the Six Nations title. Unless injuries intervene, they must start the championship as nailed-on title favourites and genuine Grand Slam contenders.

In appalling conditions yesterday, Ireland used their heads and settled for winning 'ugly', but still managed to sprinkle some gold dust on an otherwise drab, grey occasion.

Given the resourcefulness, cohesion and power of the Australian defence, the hosts' ability to score two tries amid driving rain was an achievement in itself.

While the backs had called the tune against South Africa by exposing their aggressive, blitz defence, it was the Irish pack who put paid to the Wallabies' hopes.

In a spiteful contest up front, flanker Neil Best stood head and shoulders above all those around him.

Having done enough to keep his place at the expense of Llanelli's Lion, Simon Easterby, the 26-year-old Ulsterman was always in the thick of the action, never taking a backward step.

At one stage in the first half, he flattened Lote Tuqiri with a tackle of startling ferocity and if his defensive work was good, so was his running game and his handling at the lineout.

The extent of Ireland's dominance of possession and territory in the first half was remarkable. After Stirling Mortlock had kicked Australia into a 3-0 lead, the home side commenced a lengthy siege, pounding the Wallabies' 22, searching for that elusive opening.

They found it in the 12th minute, when a multi-phase assault ended with Geordan Murphy apparently touching down in the right corner, only for video replays to show he had knocked on. No matter, Ronan O'Gara kicked the subsequent penalty and back came Ireland again.
From a close-range lineout in the 26th minute, the visitors' were finally stretched too far. Gathering possession on the 22, O'Gara chipped to the left touchline where Denis Hickie collected the ball, jinked in-field and burrowed over to mark his international comeback in fine style.

Three minutes before the break, Ireland struck again, with a try that stemmed from Donncha O'Callaghan's theft of Australian lineout ball on the left. Denis Leamy thundered forward and when the ball was shipped right at high speed, Horgan passed inside to Murphy who raced in to touch down.

O'Gara converted and O'Sullivan's side were in the box seat at 15-3. The second half was a grim spectacle as the weather worsened, but still Ireland kept up the attacking momentum.

A further penalty from Mortlock was trumped by two from O'Gara as Australia lost their discipline and composure.

While Ireland played the percentages - kicking for territory astutely, the Wallabies seemingly had no Plan B to fall back on.

Hickie almost struck again in the closing stages, only to be bundled into touch. Another try would have been fully deserved but there was still no doubt about the scale of Irish supremacy.

Their celebrations at the end were distinctly modest, suggesting that beating southern hemisphere teams is no longer a big deal in Dublin. O'Sullivan has moulded a team who are beginning to realise just how good they really are - arguably the finest in their nation's history.

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