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Ronan O'Gara: Ireland possess the most cherished trait of all – they’ve forgotten how to lose

AS delirious as the whole thing was, in real terms isn’t it worth discussing the actual implications and consequences of Ireland’s World Cup win over South Africa in Paris?

Does it make Ireland more likely to win the World Cup? Probably not. Of course, it sets them on a different path to France in terms of quarter-final match-ups, but are the learnings from the tournament’s best game more valuable to Ireland or South Africa? I always felt, in advance, that whoever extracted more gains from the game would be better set to win the World Cup. That isn’t always the victor.

The biggest upside from the result – as opposed to the performance – is staying away from the host nation, and all the positive bounces of the ball that go with that – for as long as possible. France are a different proposition to South Africa or New Zealand, and Ireland cannot play them ahead of the final now. One more stone removed from their shoe.

Historically, playing New Zealand in the quarter-final (we will get to Scotland shortly, don’t worry..) was a mountainous prospect but Ireland are not playing history at this tournament – if they were, the debate would already be accented towards an inability to progress beyond the round of eight. They are no longer cowed by All Black tradition and recognise the All Blacks are nothing like the clinical, ruthless machine they have been in previous tournaments. Looking at the All Black side selected for Friday’s pool game with Italy, it is still an impressive 23 with the capacity to finish stronger than it starts. Ireland won’t forget that but on the topic of recall, their most important characteristic in this critical month is they seem to have forgotten how to lose.

That is the most cherished trait of all for a team.

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Being in and around Paris for the few days around the Ireland-South Africa game was to be part of a grand citywide carnival of fun and friends, energy and excitement. Scott Robertson, the next All Black coach, was around for the first fortnight and he has gone home to New Zealand with a notebook full and an Irish contacts diary bursting at the seams. He got to hook up with McIlroy, Lowry et al last week and must have been struck by the boundless excitement and anticipation of the Irish support. Being in the ground made it all feel like the Ireland players had little choice but to be at the top of their emotional range for the game against the world champions. The alternative was to take a backward step with miles of green enveloping them in the Stade de France. It can be suffocating. The flip side is worth noting: outnumbered eight to one in terms of support, South Africa had less to lose in that game, on that occasion, than Ireland did.

It was as close to Croke Park 2007 as I’ve seen and heard in terms of sustained noise and passion for a sporting cause. Ireland were virtually pushed over the line but South Africa still had a match point with a late lineout and maul – three scenarios were available to the Boks and they fouled up the moment. Ireland has found that precious route to victory in any circumstance.

What I would like to stress, though, is we are quite a way short of knockout conditions and the T&C’s change when it turns to Cup rugby. Even in the smallest part of their brain last Saturday night, the players knew that neither group was going home whatever the result. Intensity is one thing, and it was at a pitch in the Stade de France. But the stomach-tightening realisation that we are out of the World Cup if we lose this game is a very different sort of pressure. That will be the case when we iron out the line-up for the last eight, and it’s a very different examination for your head.

Ireland’s injury profile and fixture schedule could hardly have worked better. The squad would need more than a week to recover from the South Africa game, and releasing everyone from camp for four days was as much a psychological benefit as physical. They went back into camp on Thursday nicely limbered up again.

What they now prepare for is a Scotland game where Ireland are red-hot favourites and expected to do a number on their Tartan friends. That will be a challenge in itself, albeit a different one to last weekend. Scotland will have five points against Romania, they will be playing for their survival, and it’s worth pointing out, have the capacity to send Ireland home before the quarter-final if they win and deprive Ireland of a bonus point. Imagine that! Sport is strange. Where are Ireland if Scotland go 10-0 after 20 minutes in Stade de France?

What makes that scenario unlikely is the Irish facility to function in chaos, a trait Andy Farrell, Paulie and Gary Keegan have clearly worked diligently on in preparing for this tournament. It would also suggest that they will not be blindsided by All Black intensity in the event of a quarter-final match-up. I can’t say I’m impressed with the rugby the All Blacks are playing. It might seem facile to draw a line between their mauling by South Africa in the build up and Ireland’s win over the Boks last weekend, but it cannot be discounted. From this remove, Ireland would be too disciplined and too accurate for the All Blacks and a phase game that would pick the locks.

Here in France, the audience is as focused on South Africa and their travails as they are on ‘the green force’, as Ireland are being called. By the very fact that the Boks lost by less than a converted try, the kicking of Manie Libbock was guaranteed to gain disproportionate attention, and there’s good reason for that. It’s not hysteria. Evidently, the Boks are not far away and the Handre Pollard performance against Tonga this weekend will be watched with great interest. They may stick with the veteran ten for the quarter-final too. I read this week that Libbock is operating at 37.5 per cent goal-kicking at test level, where the air gets thinner. At that level, when you get the opportunity of kicking goals, it can’t be a crapshoot. You have to have more certainty than that. None of De Klerk, Willemse and Kolbe are first-rate test kickers either. Libbock may be the future, but you never want to consider the future when you are preparing for the quarter-final of a World Cup. These are the two months in a four-year cycle when you need as much certainty as you can get.

Being up close Saturday night was all the confirmation required of how hard South Africa are to play against. It was a true edge-of-the-seat affair and it finished 13-8, proving it doesn’t need to be a shoot-out to be entertaining. The discipline of both packs, with their size, the quality of tackling and decision-making was really from the top tier. Offensively, both teams were guilty of turnovers, 30 between them. Obviously from an Ireland standpoint, too many of their dozen were out of touch. Those malfunctions deprived Ireland of a lot of possession and short-circuited their capacity to start the game really quickly. That element – set-ups and quality possession off the lineout will be rectified with Paulie. That’s just a non-negotiable.

Two other brief notes: Bundee Aki must feel like a new signing for Ireland. That he is in the shape of his life is evident, the reasons why more interesting. I feel the fact that he is the exclusive preserve of Camp Ireland over an extended period has really helped to discipline him and keep the blinkers on.

It might also look as if the debate at number ten is parked in terms of who backs up Johnny Sexton. It is, but only until there is a situation where Johnny is unavailable. Will Ireland management feel, in that scenario, that they might get more security and stability for first 50 minutes out of Ross Byrne?