Ireland made history by topping their pool at the World Cup for the first time as they hammered Italy 36-6 in Dunedin to confirm a southern hemisphere quarterfinal for Wellington next Sunday.
The Boks will play the early game next Sunday, and Australia, who finished second in Pool C, will be their opponents. Ireland and Wales will collide on Saturday, also in Wellington, in the other quarterfinal, while New Zealand and Argentina, and England and France will play the other two matches in Auckland.
Sunday’s result confirms that the final will be a north versus south affair, as the teams from the two hemispheres now line up in separate sections of the draw.
And with New Zealand now set to be denied the use of Dan Carter, don’t bet too much against the World Cup being won by one of unfashionable Ireland or Wales, both of whom were outstanding on Sunday and have been consistently good during the pool stage.
Ireland were held to 9-6 at halftime by an Italy team that was determined to make history for themselves by becoming the first side from that country to get into the knock-out phase of a World Cup and that played with huge emotion.
There was no denying though that Ireland were the better team in the first half, with their allround game just being sharper and more efficient than Italy's.
Ireland were unlucky to be denied a try to Tommy Bowe just beyond the half-hour mark. Referee Jonathan Kaplan ruled that a pass had gone forward but television replays showed that Bowe had bobbled the ball on his fingertips before gaining control of it and it should have been a legitimate try.
Italy could have gone to the break level on the scoreboard but Mirco Bergamasco hit the posts with a relatively simple penalty attempt and the Italians, whose discipline wasn’t as good in this game as it had been earlier in the competition and wasn’t suited to the Cup final atmosphere that enveloped the match, then had one overturned on the stroke of halftime.
Those wasted opportunities came back to bite them early in the second half when Ronan O’Gara stretched the Irish lead to six points soon after the restart with his fourth penalty and then within a matter of minutes of each other the Irish backs produced the magical touches that made sure of their pool ascendancy.
The first came in the 47th minute, with that man Bowe again slicing his way through the Italian defence before finding skipper Brian O’Driscoll up in support on the inside.
The ball was dotted down near the posts and O’Gara had no problem slotting the conversion to make it 19-6.
Then just beyond the 50-minute mark it was centre Gordon Darcy who smashed his way through the defence to set in motion an attack that eventually saw the ball moved speedily to the left and the Italians simply ran out of defenders as left wing Keith Earls celebrated his 25th birthday by diving over in the left corner.
That really was game, set and match, with all the momentum with Ireland both on the scoreboard and on the field.
There was a hiatus in the points-scoring for nearly 20 minutes, but there really was no way back for Italy, who were playing their final game under the coaching of former Bok mentor Nick Mallett.
Jonathan Sexton came on for O’Gara and promptly kicked a penalty to make it 29-6 after 69 minutes.
Italy weren’t helped by the injury that forced their highly rated prop Castro Giovanni off in the first half. The scrums ended up being fairly even with both units taking turns to be dominant after the Irish had started well.
Ireland played the percentages early on but appeared to be winning the early collisions and while Italy came back later to shade the possession battle in the first half, it was Ireland who spent most of the time in Italian territory.
The first Irish points came through an O’Gara penalty in the seventh minute when Italy were pinged for playing the man without the ball.
Although Italy twice came back with Mirco Bergamasco penalties to draw level, Ireland were never headed in the match and perhaps their most uncomfortable moment was when the Italy forwards came close to perfecting a driving maul before being held up just short.
Italy won a penalty to draw the scores level at 6-all after 21 minutes, but if we were to see the close game South African fans would have been hoping for it probably required the Italians to score a try and go ahead at that point.
They didn’t and Ireland were comprehensive and deserved winners, with Earls adding a second try off the last move of the game after Bowe was held back and unlucky not be awarded a penalty try a minute earlier.
It was an excellent performance from Ireland and like Wales they will go into next week’s game in Wellington with confidence sky high.
Ireland - Tries: Brian O`Driscoll, Keith Earls (2). Conversions: Ronan O'Gara (2), Jonathon Sexton. Penalties: O'Gara (4), Sexton.
Italy - Penalties: Mirco Bergamasco (2)