Ireland eyes all on Italy

by staff

Ireland insisted the euphoria of their shock Rugby World Cup win over Australia will not stop them from focusing on a "must-win" clash against Italy in their final pool match this weekend.

The Irish are three points clear of Australia, with the Italians, who play the United States on Tuesday, trailing the Wallabies by five.

Australia are odds-on favourites to get a bonus point win over Russia, beaten 62-12 by Ireland last weekend, in Nelson on Saturday and so qualify for the quarter-finals.

But Ireland will top the pool if they record a 16th successive victory against Italy at Dunedin's Otago Stadium on Sunday and so avoid a likely last-eight clash against champions South Africa, with Wales shaping as their potential quarter-final opponents.

Four years ago an Ireland side featuring current captain Brian O'Driscoll and fellow stalwarts such as fly-half Ronan O'Gara and lock Paul O'Connell failed to get out of the group phase, finishing third in a pool behind Argentina and then hosts France.

Ireland have never reached the semi-finals of the World Cup but this tournament could well provide them with their best chance -- and for the likes of 32-year-old centre O'Driscoll it could also be a last opportunity.

Historically, Ireland have thrived on being underdogs but they will be widely expected to beat Italy following their 15-6 win over the Wallabies.

"There is a lot of experience in this group and they are aware of that," Ireland assistant forwards coach Greg Feek said.

"There is some real determination in the squad to prove how good we can be," added the former All Blacks prop. "I think the boys are ready to break out of the old opinions people have had.

"Italy and ourselves will be going into this game both knowing that a win is a must. There's definitely a buzz from the supporters ... but our minds are on the job."

Ireland manager Paul McNaughton added: "One thing we always knew and always said from the very start is that we had to beat Italy to win this group and that's the way it's panned out.

"Everybody got excited, and we are all very pleased we beat Australia but Italy was always the game we had to win.

"Nobody is looking beyond the Italy game and nobody is getting excited about an 'easy' side of the draw or a northern hemisphere or southern hemisphere side of the draw."

Ireland lost all four of their World Cup warm-matches, culminating in a 20-9 defeat by England in Dublin last month.

However, McNaughton said the squad never lost faith in the methods of coach Declan Kidney.

"We might take too much into the results, there was a plan to give the guys game time," he said.

"It was disappointing to lose the four games but we never felt we were in a bad place and we always felt confident about the plan.

"We didn't change our plan or change our direction."