Now or never for Ireland as Aussies beckon
Ireland are a side who seem to relish the sensational one-off victory. Often it is England who feel the heat. Think of the foot-and-mouth game from October 2001 or the final match of this year's Six Nations in Dublin. Can they pull off the big one against Australia here in Auckland on Saturday?
A few months ago Ireland were looking like the danger team of the northern hemisphere. They seemed more than capable of turning over the Wallabies and opening up an enticing World Cup path where they would likely avoid New Zealand, while Australia would be left to face South Africa in the quarter-finals. Four consecutive warm-up defeats to Scotland, England and France twice drained that confidence and belief, while the opening win over the United States will have done little to alleviate the concern among their passionate supporters. Albeit in appalling conditions, the Irish handling was poor and the cutting edge missing.
Australia were arguably the most impressive of all the main contenders in the opening round of fixtures. They weathered a physical start from Italy and, despite the 6-6 half-time score, pulled clear with a classy second-half display. They are Tri-Nations champions, have a host of fabulously talented players to call upon and a very shrewd coach in Robbie Deans.
Ireland lock Paul O'Connell accepts they are firm underdogs. He said: "On form Australia are a long way ahead of us at the moment. They have threats all over the field and we have to starve them of quality ball.
"For us to win, we need a massive performance. In Irish teams, when our emotion and passion is high, we're a better side. Hopefully that will be there in abundance on Saturday. When we put it together for 80 minutes, we are an excellent side that can compete with anyone."
Paul O'Connell, seen here winning a line-out for Ireland, says his team need "a massive performance" against Australia. Photo: Getty
There is a feeling in the Irish camp they can muster a huge game. Their performances would suggest otherwise but to hear the players speak is to witness the belief. This is a squad full of quality and experience, with Irish Lions and Heineken Cup champions past and present.
One of those is full-back Rob Kearney, who won the Heineken Cup with Leinster in 2009 and has three Lions caps. He said: "It might just take one small thing to click for everything to go right for us. The game is pivotal in the pool. I'd be lying if I said there wasn't an extra energy, buzz and passion around this match. They are all the things you need to win the big games."
A glance through the history books reveals three World Cup encounters between the two nations. Australia have won the lot but two of them were settled by a single point. Few who were at Lansdowne Road in 1991 will forget the famous try scored by flying flanker Gordon Hamilton, which gave the Irish a three-point lead with a handful of minutes left. Neither will they have been able to erase the last-gasp try from Michael Lynagh that gave the Wallabies a 19-18 win.
In 2003, it finished 17-16, as the Aussies repeated the dose in Melbourne. David Humphries had a drop-goal to win the match but it drifted wide. Earlier Brian O'Driscoll scored a superb try. In fact O'Driscoll has saved many of his most special moments for those dressed in green and gold. Already a star in the northern hemisphere, he announced himself to the wider world at the Gabba in 2001 with one of the most stunning individual tries ever scored by a Lion, leaving Daniel Herbert and Nathan Grey clutching at thin air. "Waltzing O'Driscoll" sang the delirious fans. The headlines screamed similarly of his magic.
Now the old warhorse, 32, is back for another crack at those in green and gold. He summoned a moment of genius against them two years ago at Croke Park, with a last-minute try under the posts as Ireland scrambled a 20-20 draw. This is his final opportunity to light up the world stage and you can tell he intends to make the most of it. He said: "I'm so excited, this is a huge game. For me, knowing this is my last World Cup, this opportunity might not present itself again. These are the games we play for. It's a little bit of now or never - hopefully it's now."