By Mitch Phillips
Ireland beat France 24-9 in a brutal Cardiff encounter to earn a quarter-final meeting with Argentina, leaving the well-beaten French the daunting prospect of facing New Zealand as the Rugby World Cup’s pool phase came to a close on Sunday.
In the most eagerly-awaited match outside of Pool A, Ireland overcame their Six Nations rivals for the first time in four World Cup meetings. But the win came at a heavy cost, with the flyhalf Johnny Sexton and captain Paul O’Connell in danger of missing the rest of the tournament.
Ireland have never previously reached the semi-finals but have given themselves every chance this time, while France will have to repeat their stunning 2007 quarter-final win over the All Blacks in a game that is also a re-run of the 2011 final.
It will not be plain-sailing for the Irish, however. Argentina warmed up nicely with a nine-try, 64-19 thrashing of Namibia and look a considerably more dangerous attacking side than the toothless French.
Earlier on Sunday Italy ended their underwhelming involvement with a 32-22 win over a spirited Romania to secure third spot in Pool D and automatic qualification for 2019.
The hosts of that tournament, Japan, signed off from their best-ever World Cup with a 28-18 victory over the United States, becoming the first team to win three pool games and not progress – having only ever won one match in all their previous World Cups.
The game of the day, however, was in Cardiff. France and Ireland had both cruised through their first three pool games with an eye on Sunday’s finale and the Millennium Stadium produced an atmosphere worthy of the occasion.
Ireland fans were in the majority but their faith was severely tested by early injuries to Sexton and O’Connell, with the latter likely to be forced into retirement from international rugby three weeks earlier than planned after 109 Ireland appearances and seven for the British and Irish Lions.
The squad’s strength in depth was illustrated, however, by the way they took the problems in their stride to lead 9-6 at the break.
They then strangled the life out of a disappointing France in the second half and underlined their dominance with tries from Rob Kearney and Conor Murray.
“I’m incredibly proud of the performance,” Ireland coach Joe Schmidt said. “It was a battle that was attritional but a battle that showed a fair bit of character in the side.”
Argentina’s final outing in the pool phase was a considerably less taxing affair and nine different Pumas players scored a try.
Juan Martin Hernandez, playing at flyhalf, Matias Moroni, Horacio Agulla, Facundo Isa and Lucas Noguera helped them to a 36-7 half-time lead, with Matias Alemanno, Leonardo Senatore, Julian Montoya and Tomas Cubelli joining in after the break as the Pumas turned on the style against the tiring Africans.
Namibia, as they have all tournament, showed real grit and were rewarded with tries for Johan Tromp, JC Greyling and Eugene Jantjies.
The largely amateur team also provided one of the uplifting moments of the tournament when giant prop Johnny Redelinghuys was given the chance to convert Jantjies’ last-minute try to mark his 50th and final international.
After lumbering up, his kick dropped short and wide but produced smiles and handshakes all round and earned the loudest cheer of the day from the Leicester crowd.
It is easy to forget how dire Japan’s record was before this year, with their only win in seven previous tournaments coming against Zimbabwe in 1991 and an unwanted World Cup record to their name when New Zealand hammered them 145-17 in 1995.
However, after shocking South Africa in their opening game and then beating Samoa, they played with confidence and panache to beat the United States in Gloucester but finished behind Scotland, who gathered two bonus points and also beat Japan.
Loose forward Amanaki Mafi and wingers Yoshikazu Fujita and Kotaro Matsushima scored tries for Japan, with fullback Chris Wyles and winger Takudzwa Ngwenya replying for the Americans, who depart having lost all four games.
Italy, still the only Tier One country never to reach the quarter-finals, looked set for a convincing win when tries by Leonardo Sarto, Edoardo Gori, Tommaso Allan and Alessandro Zanni had them in control at 29-3.
But Romania, who came from 15-0 down to beat Canada on Tuesday, again hit back with two tries for Adrian Apostol and one for Valentin Poparlan in a rousing final 15 minutes.
There was bad news for Wales after their defeat by Australia on Saturday as back Liam Williams became the latest to join their long injury list and has been ruled out of the rest of the tournament with a foot injury.
Wales face South Africa in the quarter-finals while Australia will take on Scotland, both games at Twickenham this weekend. The other two quarter-finals will be at the Millennium Stadium.