Despite yesterday’s bonus-point win over Russia, question marks still hang over Ireland’s form heading into their final Pool A game with Samoa.
Joe Schmidt’s side were expected to bounce back in style following a shock defeat to Japan last weekend. However, a much-changed Irish outfit laboured to a 35-0 win over the Russian Bears.
Rory Best was one of the experienced campaigners who made way for yesterday’s game. Speaking earlier this morning the Irish captain reiterated that while their confidence had been knocked, the group are still assured of their capability.
“Whenever you lose a game and you go from being supposedly contenders in the first game to useless in the second game, ultimately it’s always going to affect the confidence a little bit. But I think we bounced back well and I think this group understands what we need to do to play well.
“We understand our core values and we know that we weren’t as good in those areas against Japan.
“Sometimes you’ve got to just take it on the chin and think, ‘We didn’t play as well as we can, Japan played very well and put us under a bit of pressure and used their opportunities.’ In terms of confidence in this group, I think we’re still very assured of what we’re capable of and how we get there.”
The Ulster man pointed to the long-running narrative that Ireland don’t start competitions well, citing that they started very well this time around.
A dominant 80-minute performance against Scotland was followed by an opening quarter that saw Ireland run Japan ragged. However, the wheels firmly came off the wagon and now they head into their final group game knowing they still need a win and possibly, a bonus-point (depending on other results).
With over a week until their final game with Samoa, Best highlighted that it was important Ireland utilise the upcoming weekend without a game.
“We had a very good start. Before we arrived out here there was a lot being made – and a lot being pushed at us – about how we apparently don’t start competitions well. And we did start well. We started the Japan game really well.
“At 12-3, it’s not a game where we expect to lose a game from. Traditionally when we get ahead we’re a very hard team to stop and we just made two uncharacteristic mistakes, but there were aspects of that game that we were reasonably happy with. There were obviously a lot of things to work on.
“It’s very, very rare in a World Cup where you get a weekend where you have no game. So it is really important that we utilise that.”
Johnny Sexton took up the role of captain in Best’s stead yesterday and put in an impressive performance before being substituted at half-time.
Best praised Sexton as a fantastic captain and leader within the group before pointing to his success with Leinster as proof of his credentials.
“Johnny is a fantastic captain. The problem when you get somebody as good as Johnny, the tendency is sometimes to focus on some of the negatives. If you look at the way he’s led Leinster, there’s not been a lot said about how successful they were last year.
“Johnny is definitely maturing into somebody that understands the difference being a quality player and a quality captain. There’s no hiding away from the fact that he’s a big, big leader in this group.”
Meanwhile, Niall Scannell stepped into the hooker position in Best’s absence. Ireland’s captain praised his Munster counterpart, as well as John Ryan, after receiving their first-ever World Cup starts.
“I thought ‘Scans’ went really well. The set-piece was good, he got around the pitch. Scans is a very physical player.
“The front row that played yesterday, there’s a little bit of comfort in that. The boys did really well, especially with Scans getting his first start and John Ryan getting his first appearance in the World Cup.”
Despite the loss to Japan and the under-par performance against Russia, qualification for the quarter-finals is still firmly in Ireland’s hands.
“Ultimately you get to these pool competitions with a knockout stage coming after them and you want to get into the last round with your destiny in your own hands. We’re there.
“We would have expected to be in a better place after three games. We would have expected to have won the three games but that hasn’t happened. It was important to get five points last night and now it’s important that we take a couple of days just to regenerate, to refresh everyone a little bit after what has been a fairly hectic schedule in a five-day turnaround.
“We’ll get into the Samoa game on Monday and we’ll make sure that we keep improving. We said that after the Scotland game and we didn’t do it against Japan, so it’s important that we keep taking steps forward.
“But ultimately where you want to be is knowing that a win – and a bonus-point win – will guarantee you a quarter-final place.”