Friday night, make sure you’re in bed early. In fact, be in bed before dark. Otherwise, there is a danger you will sleep in and miss the most crucial game in Ireland rugby history. Never before has there been a better chance of Ireland reaching the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup, and dare we say it, the final itself. A win Saturday will ensure that Ireland achieve their best ever finish in a World Cup, come what may in subsequent games.
There was a cloud surrounding the Irish squad as they left these shores a few weeks ago. The warm up games had been a disaster, perhaps not in the mind of Declan Kidney, but in the minds of the fans and the media. The common consensus was that Ireland would be on a plane home after the Italy game, or best case scenario after a quarter final with South Africa.
The USA game did little to allay fears, it was tense, it was tight, and there was no bonus point. There were echoes of the last World Cup, when Ireland failed to put away the smaller fish in their group and got dumped out without even a quarter final to their name. Hopes had been high, and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the fall out.
So with these memories still to the fore in supporter’s minds, it was with heavy hearts that Irish supporters waited for the Australia game. But then, oh glory of glories! It was a barnstorming performance, particularly from the pack, and the World Cup was turned on its head. Now if Ireland won their final two pool games then the quarter and semi finals layout would ensure a Northern Hemisphere vs Southern Hemisphere final. This has been the case in the last two tournaments, but wasn’t expected to be so this year.
Russia were brave in defeat, Italy underhand, but both were dispatched and this Ireland team stands on the cusp of greatness. In their way is a Wales team led by Sam Warburton, captain at the precocious age of 22. This already world-class number 7 will line up against perhaps the player of the tournament thus far, Tullow man Sean O’Brien.
There’s no point in speculating on who will prevail on Saturday, it is going to be a tight one either way. Ireland’s backs have started firing on all cylinders in the nick of time, and Wales play a beautiful expansive style of rugby. Expect tries, expect heavy hits, expect an epic. But in the meantime, if you find a quiet moment, dare to dream of Irish hands on the Webb Ellis trophy.