Mouthwatering tie in store when Ireland face champions South Africa – The Irish Times

The second weekend of France 2023 was always likely to be the least thrilling of the tournament, in part because the opening round had been so heavily stacked with meaningful games that would have a significant impact on the final tables.

New Zealand’s 71-3 win over Namibia and South Africa’s facile 76-0 rout of Romania, probably the weakest side at the Rugby World Cup, were uncomfortable watches and provided handy fodder for detractors of the sport and the tournament.

But Uruguay against France, especially, as well as Samoa, Chile and Portugal have been good value, and demonstrate that World Rugby’s investment in good quality coaches for second-tier teams has had an effect.

Ireland ultimately put Tonga to the sword but the repatriation of four former All Blacks has given them more X-factor and they are probably better than the slick, well-oiled Irish machine allowed them to be. They could well rattle Scotland’s cage next Sunday in Nice.

Tonga were also unlucky to lose Israel Folau through injury and Goerge Moala through suspension. Samoa have benefitted similarly from a clutch of newly eligible Test players becoming available for them, as they each have from having players in the Moana Pasifika Super Rugby team.

Fiji haven’t needed such an injection, but in addition to their cluster of game breakers and big hitters plying their trade in European professional rugby, they have clearly benefitted enormously from the Fijian Drua team playing in Super Rugby for the last three years.

As a trio, the Pacific Island teams are stronger than they’ve ever been at a World Cup.

Besides, this was the weekend during which a tiny Tier 2 Pacific Island like Fiji (population 935,974) beat — an admittedly waning, badly assembled member of the rugby elite — two-time World Cup winner Australia (population 25.69 million).

One felt at the time that the Australia Rugby Union made a blunder in ripping up the script by removing Dave Rennie and appointing Eddie Jones, for all his World Cup pedigree, less than a year out from the World Cup. Rennie’s results last year did not entirely reflect their progress and the squad’s evident unity under him.

Jones ripped up the last three years with a seemingly intemperate squad selection after the Wallabies’ results worsened under his watch. First and foremost, the investment in the 22-year-old Casper Gordon, who had four caps, as his sole outhalf — while omitting Quade Cooper as well as Michael Hooper and Jed Holloway — has unsurprisingly backfired.

As bizarre was the inclusion of 25 World Cup debutants, including 15 players with five caps or less. In six squads from 2003 to 2019, the Wallabies only named 14 players with five caps or fewer in total.

Gordon has looked out of his depth and against Fiji the Wallabies looked devoid of ideas beyond Samu Kerevi trucking it up or putting boot to ball. They were lucky to escape with a bonus point against a Fijian side whose lineout malfunctioned horribly and who missed chances, including a kick at the death to deny Australia a losing bonus point.

The result is hardly a shock admittedly, after Fiji’s win over England and an epic against Wales which they should have won but for their own and Mathew Carling’s decisions. But Fiji’s losing two bonus points against Wales and this win leaves them well-placed.

If Fiji win their remaining two games against Georgia and Portugal with bonus points they will qualify for the last eight, as in the event of sides finishing a pool level on match points, their head-to-head record will be decisive. As two bonus points wins would take Fiji to 16 points, and that is the most Australia can achieve, they now have their destiny in their own hands.

In any event, Australia are now in the last chance saloon and must beat Wales next Sunday night in Lyon when an intriguing weekend is completed.

Realistically, as Wales sit on 10 points with the Wallabies on six, Australia need to beat Warren Gatland’s side and probably move above them on points.

Australia meet Portugal on Sunday week before Wales play Georgia a week later and, while there are no guarantees, whoever finishes above the other come Sunday night will be in pole position to qualify. In other words, Australia need to win by more than seven points while also denying Wales an attacking bonus point, or win with a bonus point and restrict Wales to no more than one bonus point.

Gatland will stress that a win of any hue will leave them well-placed to top the pool, and failing that two or possibly one bonus point would see them lead Australia into their final matches. But if Australia wins it will keep everything in the melting pot and raise the distinct possibility that, like Japan in 2015, a team could win three out of four matches but still go out.

With England’s limited and uninspiring, if relatively efficient, brand of rugby leaving them atop Pool C, the clash between Argentina and Samoa on Friday night in Nantes looks like it could be a defining one.

But there’s no doubt that Ireland’s hugely important meeting with South Africa on Saturday night is the game of the weekend. South Africa have the insurance policy of a win over Scotland, whom Ireland have still to face, and it remains conceivable that both the world’s number one side and the world champions will advance to the knock-out stages because nothing so far has questioned the identity of the four best sides.

The rewards for winning on Saturday in the Stade de France would be to heighten the chances of winning the pool, earning an extra day’s rest for the quarter-finals, and also avoiding France at that juncture.

It’s not that France can’t be beaten in the quarter-finals, and it may even be that in Paris they will be tougher still to overcome in the final. But if this Irish team is to break new ground and, say, advance all the way to the final, then their best chance of doing so is by beating the Springboks.

Yep, this one is huge.

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