RWC 2019 Pool Game 36: Sexton on song as Ireland overcome Samoa

This was more like it, Ireland overcoming a red card to overpower Samoa 47-5 in Fukuoka last night, and put themselves back in the frame as a Rugby World Cup contender.

Admittedly, they benefitted from a misfiring performance from the Samoans, who were left ruing another ill-disciplined effort that brought them two more yellow cards to add to their unwanted collection at this tournament. But it was a straight red for Ireland’s gun centre Bundee Aki that threatened to loosen his side’s grip on the game.

They led 21-5 at the time, and another score for Samoa at that point would have made things very interesting indeed. But Ireland coped admirably, Sexton stepping up as he has done so many times before to guide his team to a 33-5 advantage before earning an early rest ahead of next weekend’s Quarter Finals.

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While a large percentage of the rest of the country were battening down the hatches for the imminent arrival of Typhoon Hagibis, it was play on in the south west of Japan. There was a pretty stiff breeze swirling around the Fukuoka Hakatanamori Stadium, but as the game kicked off all the focus was on the state of the pitch. It had been relaid in the aftermath of scrum-instigated issues in the game between France and the USA, and now resembled a hastily assembled patchwork quilt.

But it was Samoa’s maul defence that was disintegrating just five minutes in. A penalty on halfway gave Johnny Sexton the chance to chew off maximum metres down the sideline, and when the forwards did their thing and rumbled towards the line, the level of resistance was nigh on existent as skipper Rory Best found the chalk.

Samoa’s task was made that much harder after the restart, a high shot from former Randwick and Eastern Suburbs hooker Seilala Lam receiving a yellow in mitigation from referee Nic Berry, given Jacob Stockdale was dipping into the tackle.

Ireland’s second visit to the 22 earned them a second try, and again it came off the back of poor Samoan discipline with a late hit from Alapati Leiua. This time they mauled from deep, and when the march forward was just about quelled, the ball found its way into the hands of Tadhg Furlong, and the prop made a mockery of the four defenders in front of him to barrel a path to the line.

Lam returned with no further damage during his absence, but Ireland were a team in a hurry, and they had a third by the end of the first quarter. While the first two were a product of the set-piece, this was an example of the damage they can wreak when the backline clicks. Conor Murray was the instigator, upping the ante at the back of the ruck and firing it wide for Sexton to put Jordan Larmour through a gap, and the elusive fullback had the star flyhalf back on the inside for a return pass and run to the line.

Having put together a near faultless first 20 minutes, Murray and Sexton suddenly put two passes to the floor, and Kane Leaupepe – Samoa’s best for mine in this tournament – raced onto it and eventually earned a penalty to get his side some territory to work from. They didn’t waste it.

Initially setting up a driving maul from the lineout, they splintered off for captain Jack Lam to send younger brother Seilala on a crash ball. And when the pill was recycled, it was Jack who carried hard for the line and was driven over with a bit of help from the added bulk supplied by Logovii Mulipola and Henry Taefu.

The worm well and truly turned just before the half hour. Samoan flyhalf Ulupano Seuteni carried into contact and had his head snapped back violently in a collision with Irish centre Bundee Aki. Replays showed a high shot to the head, but again, Seuteni was dipping into the tackle and Aki was trying to wrap his arms around rather than leading with the shoulder.

Given the earlier outcome it seemed like a similar punishment would be meted out. But ref Berry decided their was a higher degree of danger because Aki had remained upright, and to audible gasps from the large green sections of the crowd, he raised a red card instead.

Suddenly facing a potentially sticky situation, Ireland’s leaders stepped up. None more so than the talismanic Sexton, on whose shoulder’s this team are carried. A period of pick and drives had Samoa firmly on their heels in the shadows of half-time, desperately scrambling to keep their line intact as Ireland’s forwards banged on the door. When the ball was unplayable and Ireland got a scrum put-in five metres out, Murray cleared it quickly with one pass wide for his halves partner to smash over for his second, and the sought-after bonus point.

A brilliant piece of defensive work from Michael Ala’alatoa held the impressive Tadhg Furlong up just a few minutes after the restart, as Ireland looked to put their foot to the floor whilst giving a good impression of being the side with a man advantage. But they kept the pressure on at the scrum, milking penalties before a tap and go and a bullet cut-out pass from Murray bypassed three Samoans, for Larmour to go over in the corner.

That was enough of a buffer for coach Joe Schmidt to remove some of his most precious cargo from the fray, with Murray, Sexton and Furlong replaced by Luke McGrath, Joey Carbery and Andrew Porter respectively. But the changes didn’t impact the momentum, Ireland continuing to muscle up and pepper the Samoan line, and forcing a succession of penalties that eventually led to a yellow card for openside TJ Ioane.

Given they were struggling to contain their opponent’s despite the extra man, the numerical parity for the next 10 minutes seemed likely to tip matters over the edge on the scoreboard. The Pacific Islanders were unable to get out of their 22, or get their hands on any ball with which to create anything tangible. They were also shooting themselves in the foot continually with poor discipline, a late hit from Leaupepe on CJ Stander earning a penalty, and another warning for skipper Lam from Berry.

Persisting with the full-frontal barrage, Ireland were just happy to put the ball up their jumpers and get to the line a metre at a time if that’s what it took. It may not be pretty but it’s damn effective when done well, and when Stander did manage to scrape the Gilbert on the chalk in the 66th minute, it had been more a case of when, not if, for quite some time.

They put the icing on the cake with something a bit more easier on the eye with 10 minutes to go, a lovely grubber in behind from Carbery sitting up kindly for newly-arrived winger Andrew Conway to race through and touch down in goal.

And there was almost time for a late consolation for Samoa, all hands on deck at a lineout maul to drive Piula Fa’asalele over in the 76th minute, only for the TMO to confirm he’d dropped the ball first and placed it while already on the ground. No try.

Seven tries to one for an impressive Ireland then, and a big step back onto the horse they fell off of in spectacular style against Japan, and only managed to get one foot in the stirrups of against Russia. With the pack getting back to its dominant best, and Sexton fit and firing, could they still pull one performance out of the fire to beat New Zealand and South Africa in a Quarter Final?

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IRELAND 47 (Johnny Sexton 2, Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong, Jordan Larmour, CJ Stander, Andrew Conway tries; Johnny Sexton 4 cons, Joey Carbery 2 cons) defeated SAMOA 5 (Jack Lam try) HT 26-5 at Fukuoka Hakatanomori Stadium

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