By Brendan O’Brien
Joe Schmidt chose his words carefully but he was clearly fuming about the fact that Ireland were playing rugby today while others got to take the weekend off as he announced the Ireland team to play Samoa in the team hotel on Thursday.
The head coach joked ruefully about how Ireland could have done without their last pool game, against France, four years ago given it left so many of his players injured and unavailable for the quarter-final against Argentina a week later.
The fear was that injury could wreak further damage here. It was a worry that was exacerbated by the state of the appalling surface but no-one really considered the possibility that ill-discipline could eat into their resources again too.
Sean O’Brien was one of those who sat out that sobering defeat to the Pumas in 2015 after he was cited and punished for an off-the-ball incident with Pascal Papé. And now here Ireland are, approaching the last eight with Bundee Aki out because of a red card.
The manner in which Ireland went about their business in seeing off the Samoans after that was encouraging but Aki’s dismissal, while unfortunate in the sense that there was no foul play intended, adds to the sense of an Irish team that is still making things that bit harder for themselves.
This is a side that achieved previously impossible feats in an Irish context – the first two defeats of the All Blacks, a win in South Africa, a first series success in the southern hemisphere in the pro era – and yet their intermittent struggles with the basics in 2019 remain an issue.
The pat take when Aki walked was that everything had been going grand through the first quarter, by the end of which Ireland led 21-0 and had three tries scored. It wasn’t. There had already been too many examples of the simple things not being done.
It eventually hurt them.
Samoa’s defence folded like a deck chair three times in that opening 21 minutes. Ireland didn’t have to do anything much out of the ordinary to take advantage and yet amid all that were spilled passes, loose passes and a Jonathan Sexton kick straight to touch.
It was two more loose passes that turned what was a comfortable evening into a costly one, with the first establishing the platform for Samoa’s only try and the second setting in motion a sequence of events that ended with Aki seeing red for a high tackle on Ulupano Seuteni.
Samoa were poor enough and Ireland more than good enough for that disadvantage to be far from terminal to their World Cup ambitions this time but it is the kind of stuff that kills a team’s chances against the All Blacks or the Springboks.
Aki has not had a good tournament but this was the perfect opportunity for him to turn a corner, given Robbie Henshaw was suiting up alongside him for the first time in Japan and the land of his forefathers providing the opposition.
It’s only eleven months since he was superb in the midfield as Ireland defeated his native New Zealand for the first time on home soil but Schmidt will be relieved that the casualty station isn’t stocked in the manner of four years ago in Cardiff.
There were plenty of other positives to take from a businesslike win against limited opposition, even aside from the 47-5 scoreline and the seven tries recorded.
Conor Murray’s passing was crisp, Jonathan Sexton looked sharp, Henshaw came through his return and Joey Carbery got a badly-needed run.
Jordan Larmour looks better and better at full-back, Tadhg Beirne slipped effectively into the back row and CJ Stander was superb at times.
This wasn’t Ireland at their imperious best but it was a performance that injects some momentum back into their campaign after the traumatic defeat to Japan in Shizuoka and the imperfections that littered the easy win over the Russians in Kobe.
They have negotiated their way out of the pool and New Zealand or South Africa are up next, regardless of what does or does not happen in Yokohama tomorrow where Japan and Scotland are supposed to meet.
The graph will have to shoot up again for Ireland to make history and break the glass ceiling that is the quarter-final.