By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — Even if they haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory so far in the rugby World Cup, there is a definite chance that by the end of this week, an Ireland team will have qualified for the semi-finals of the tournament for the very first time.
Thanks to an improved performance and a 44-14 win over Romania in their final pool game, the Irish have qualified for today’s play-off against Argentina in the northern France town of Lens.
If coach Warren Gatland and his players manage to see off Argentina, then they will face France in a quarter-final at Lansdowne Road on Sunday. And even if Ireland haven’t beaten France since 1983, this current French side is possibly one of the weakest and most disjointed for many years.
Following the massive disappointment of a 23-3 defeat by Australia, the Irish responded by producing their most convincing display of the competition to date against Romania. Eric Elwood was a revelation at out-half and he is line to play in today’s vital game, while Conor O’Shea redeemed himself by scoring two tries.
However, with more than half the team playing a fourth successive game in the tournament, coach Gatland must be apprehensive about fatigue and a number of injuries which have affected his squad.
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Captain Dion O’Cuinneagain, Eric Miller and Justin Bishop have all been troubled by hamstring injuries, while experienced prop Peter Clohessy is a major doubt for the match against Argentina because of a recurring back strain.
To add to the problems flanker Trevor Brennan is suspended following a punching incident against Australia and the rejuvenated Elwood had 14 stitches in a head wound towards the end of the Romanian game.
Apart from the uncertainty about Clohessy who missed the win over Romania, Gatland has been upbeat about the situation. "Obviously, injuries are always a concern, but we can still beat Argentina."
In fact, Ireland defeated the Pumas in a World Cup warm-up match 32-24 at the end of August, but the south Americans were missing three key players on that occasion.
The Irish go into today’s play-off as marginal favorites. If they win and book a place in the quarter-final, their tournament will have been regarded as a success. Should they lose, then the World Cup will have been a disaster. The line is that thin. And Warren Gatland and his players know it.
International rules series
Ireland were held to a 52-52 draw in the second game of the International Rules series Australia in Adelaide, but the Irish retained the trophy on the basis of a superior aggregate score.
With the Aussies much more accurate than during the first game in Melbourne, Ireland were hard-pressed to hold on in the final quarter, but they hold out for an impressive overall success despite injuries to Ciaran O’Sullivan, Sean de Paor and Glen Ryan.
Although the build-up to the first test had been blighted by Graham Geraghty’s racist remark, over 65,000 fans turned up in Melbourne and then more than 45,000 paid into the second game to give the series a resounding vote of confidence.
"We won in Ireland last year," said manager Colm O’Rourke, "and now we’ve come here and repeated the dose." O’Rourke had been to Australia as a player in 1986, but he was adamant there was no comparison between the two experiences.
"At that time, the idea hadn’t the full support of the authorities and the crowds were very small. There was no atmosphere at the matches, not compared with this."
With Finbar Cullen of Offaly and Kerry’s Seamus Moynihan playing key roles in defense, the Irish drew clear in the final quarter after trailing for much of the game. However, Nathan Buckley levelled matters in the closing seconds.
Sean Martin Lockhart, Trevor Giles and Anthony Tohill also performed superbly, however, Ireland’s dangerman Peter Canavan was shut out in both tests by Jason Akermanis.
"This is right up there with winning an All Ireland," said Irish captain John McDermott. "I think it’s better than last year to come out here and beat the Australians on their home turf."
While there might have been some relief in official circles that the Republic of Ireland avoided England in the draw for the European soccer championship play-offs, manager Mick McCarthy wasn’t exactly dancing for joy when Turkey were revealed as his team’s opponents.
Apart from Turkey’s reputation for providing hostile welcomes for visiting teams, McCarthy was quick to acknowledge their undoubted technical ability. "When you consider that the Turks beat Germany at the start of the qualifying campaign, it won’t be in any way easy for us. But our recent results against a team of Croatia’s class proved that we’re capable of beating anybody."
With the play-offs being staged over two games, the Irish will be at Lansdowne Road for the first leg on Saturday, November 13, with the second match scheduled for either Istanbul or a more compact stadium in Bursa four days later.
The place in next year’s finals will be decided by the aggregate scores over the two games and if the teams are level, there will be extra-time, followed by a penalty shoot-out if necessary.
In a controversial move which provoked a sharp reaction from Turkish diplomats in Ireland, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) advised supporters to think carefully before travelling to the game. The FAI’s chief executive, Bernard O’Byrne, said the experience of Irish supporters who made the journey to Istanbul for a European championship match in 1991 was not a good one.
There were claims at the time that Turkish supporters urinated on, and spat at the Irish and there were also reports of several scuffles outside the stadium.
Ray Treacy Travel, the FAI’s official tour operator, said they would not be organizing flights and accommodation for supporters for next month’s game. "Given the reports which have come out from visiting fans from many countries at games in Turkey, we consider it inadvisable to organize trips for our supporters," a company spokesman added.
The FAI also confirmed that Turkish officials were considering moving the second leg out of Istanbul to a smaller stadium in Bursa where the atmosphere for visiting teams can be even more intimidating. "Once the ground conforms to standard there is very little we can do about it," said O’Byrne.
Meanwhile, McCarthy is hopeful that Roy Keane will be available for the play-offs following injury. Keane came on as a substitute during Manchester United’s 4-1 win over Watford last weekend. However, midfielder Mark Kinsella will definitely miss the first leg through suspension.