Premium

Johnny Sexton's importance to Ireland cannot be overstated if Joe Schmidt's men are going to advance past the quarter-finals

Ireland’s talisman scored twice in a match for the first time since 2014
Ireland’s talisman scored twice in a match for the first time since 2014 Credit: AP

Given the devastation being wrought by Typhoon Hagibis a few hundred miles away, it felt slightly surreal to be playing rugby in Fukuoka on Saturday. Inappropriate somehow.

Ireland are to be commended, therefore, for focusing so well on the job in hand. Joe Schmidt’s team secured the bonus-point win they needed to guarantee themselves a place in the quarter-finals next weekend. And they did it in some style.

Whether they end up playing New Zealand or South Africa in the last eight will depend on the outcome of today’s clash between Scotland and Japan, and whether it goes ahead at all. But they will be buoyed by this performance.

This match had the potential to be a banana skin, with a pitch which was literally falling apart at the seams and a charged-up Samoan team who had been in camp together for a dangerously long time. But it was the Pacific Islanders - ironically, given all the talk of them potentially leaving a trail of Irish bodies - who failed to land a punch.

The victory did not come without cost. Bundee Aki’s dismissal after 29 minutes for a dangerous tackle on Ulupano Seuteni will, in all likelihood, spell the end of his World Cup. A bitterly disappointing outcome in this match of all matches for a player of Samoan heritage, although not one he could argue with. 

 

Bundee Aki was sent off against Samoa Credit: Getty Images

Joe Schmidt certainly did not try. “We live in hope,” he said of the prospect of Aki avoiding a ban . “We'll see what the judiciary decide but once it's a red card you sense a loss of control over what happens next. I think Bundee is upright, you can see both of his hands behind the shoulder blades of the player who is just starting to come up. It's all split second stuff.

“[But] no matter what you try to present, there is a very hard line and I certainly feel for Bundee. He is pretty devastated. Any further participation in the tournament is now at risk."

Aki’s impending ban aside, the positives far outweighed the negatives for Ireland. 

Johnny Sexton was superb yet again. His importance to this team cannot be overstated. Ireland’s talisman scored twice in a match for the first time since 2014 - including Ireland’s all-important fourth just before half time - and generally marshalled the team as only he can. Schmidt was able to hook him with half an hour still to play, giving Joey Carbery some much-needed game time. 

In fact, the substitutions ran like clockwork for Ireland. Tadhg Furlong, Rory Best, James Ryan, Conor Murray, all excellent and all safely withdrawn before an hour was up. 

There were other positives, too. Jordan Larmour, scorer of Ireland’s fifth try, looked like the Larmour who lit up Leinster last year rather than the one straitjacketed by Ireland. He was a thoroughly deserved man of the match although Schmidt hinted afterwards that he was likely to stick with tried-and-trusted Rob Kearney for the quarters.

There will not be much debate about the centres, either, with Aki now out of the equation. Robbie Henshaw came through an hour unscathed last night and will almost certainly start alongside Garry Ringrose next weekend.

There is a danger that Ireland get ahead of themselves again. A bit like their opening match against Scotland, there is a case for saying this victory owed more to Samoa being poor than Ireland brilliant. And Steve Jackson’s team were really poor, giving away 17 penalties in total and playing some reckless rugby, with TJ Ioane and Seilala Lam both receiving yellows.

After tries from Best, Furlong and Sexton - from a wonderful Larmour break - Samoa briefly got back into the game through a Jack Lam try, which made it 21-5. That was as close as they got. Samoa failed to score a single point after Aki was sent off. Ireland ended the game with 75 per cent possession and 81 per cent territory, looking very much at home at a stadium which bears a striking resemblance to Thomond Park with its open ends and arched stands. 

Schmidt said he felt his team were in a better place heading into the quarter-finals than they were four years ago, when lost some of their best players following a bruising encounter with the French.

“This time, hopefully, we can give it our best shot,” he said. “We have a mountain to climb. But after tonight, the lads, they’ve got their boots on, they’ve got their crampons, and they’ve taken a little bit of an ascent.”