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What if this is as good as it gets for Ireland at the Rugby World Cup?

Even though rugby talk is not exactly banned round the extended Farrell breakfast table, you can only imagine that England’s horrible failure to back up their semi-final victory over the All Blacks four years ago with a decent showing seven days later against the Springboks would have most certainly come to the attention of Farrell Snr even if such a topic of conversation would be acutely painful to son, Owen.

England’s collapse from one of the high-water points of the entire 2019 World Cup tournament was a salutary lesson for all those involved. That the downbeat fall-out was so closely connected with the Farrell family will have been stored away somewhere by that wise old owl, Andy. As Warren Gatland teased at the time, England fell into the trap of believing that they had cracked it with their all-encompassing victory, far more comprehensive than the 19-7 scoreline indicates. 

The win was hailed right across the rugby world with England playing as if they were an All Black side – sharp, potent, on-point and relentless. Yet within minutes of the final starting against what had been an underwhelming Springbok side, a few of us up in the stands of the Yokohama Stadium turned to one another with raised eyebrows, realising that England were simply not at the races. They were shot. It was a sharp fall from grace.

Sustaining peak performance is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one. It is a recurring theme of World Cups. France hit such heights in getting off the canvas in 1999 to deliver the knockout blow to end all knockout blows when scoring 33 unanswered second-half points to beat New Zealand at Twickenham that it was perhaps little surprise that they were so emotionally spent when losing to Australia in the final in Cardiff six days later.

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One thing to guard against is any change in style in order to double-bluff the opposition. England got duped in 1991 by master manipulator David Campese. In many ways, Will Carling’s team had their landmark victory in a ferocious quarter-final win over France in Paris, very much on a par with the intensity seen at the Stade de France last weekend, allowing, of course, for the difference in conditioning levels between the pro and amateur eras. 

There was plenty of blood spilled in the cause that day as England, who had lost to New Zealand in the pool stage at Twickenham, rose to the challenge. The come-down almost saw them trip up in a semi-final against Scotland at Murrayfield. A thriller it wasn’t although there were plenty of palpitating English hearts as they nicked it, 9-6, escaping with a victory that was aided significantly by Gavin Hastings missing a sitter in front of the posts.

England with a heavy-duty pack of forwards containing some of the game’s all-time bruisers in the shape of Wade Dooley, Mike Teague, Mickey Skinner, and Brian Moore, were primed to assert their evident superiority up-front. They were, that is, until Campo the Lip, kept taunting them with ‘Boring, Boring England,’ jibes (nothing’s changed). It was a rather schoolboyish prank to wind up England but it worked. For the first time in the tournament England threw the ball around and Australia duly won, 12-6.

Andy Farrell doesn’t look as if he will be susceptible to such mind games baloney. Given the manner in which he dealt with Rassie Erasmus’ supposed master-stroke of having his Nuke Squad on the bench, noting that he wasn’t really bothered about it and he’d be going with a conventional 5-3 split, it’s a fair bet that he’ll handle whatever comes his way.

What about waitresses called ‘Suzie’? The All Blacks, with Jonah Lomu rampant, had (literally) flattened England in the semi-final in Cape Town and were heavily fancied to do the same to South Africa in the final. Was it the Nelson Mandela effect that did for them, or the low-flying Boeing 747 that revved the crowd, or was it indeed a mysterious waitress who caused the squad to go down with a violent bout of food poisoning on the eve of the game? We’ll never know.

One wallow in victory doesn’t make a summer. If Ireland don’t know the truth of that maxim already, then a flick back through these historical incidents will be enough to put them on their guard. Ireland are forewarned and so forearmed.

Brendan O'Brien: Ireland have shown an ability to win without always playing their best

Have Ireland peaked too early at this World Cup? If nothing else, this makes for a nice change from 2007 and 2019, two other times the national team started with major bodies of recent work behind them before exiting with their CVs in shreds. Yeah, peaking in the pools is one of those first-world rugby problems.

Yes, there are examples of countries leaving their best behind them in the middle reaches of a tournament and falling short, but go through the previous nine editions and back to 1987 and there are counter arguments where eventual winners arguably brought their best to the table long before the final weekend.

The last 20 years is a sizeable enough sample.

England in 2003? Their semi-final destruction of what had been up to then a very good French side still stands out. South Africa’s most eye-catching day four years later was the 36 points they put up unanswered on the holders in the pool stages. New Zealand dribbled over the line on home soil in 2011.

What all these sides had in common was an ability to win without always playing their best. The top teams find a way to get the job done and even the most atheistic among us when it comes to this sport has to concede that Ireland have the ability to figure things out on the fly and get themselves over the line.

Contrary to what we choose to believe about sport, the race isn’t always to the swiftest nor the battle the strongest. Ireland were in danger of being swamped by the Boks at the weekend. Their lineout should have been taped off like a toxic hazard site and yet they held their noses and went back in for more. Always more.

It made for the country’s greatest ever World Cup win, no question about that, and Stuart Barnes couldn’t help but see a premature picture in the sight of the Irish team doing a lap of honour and applauding their fans after the final whistle. An interesting observation but one that begs a couple of counterpoints.

First, the celebrations were earned. And players and coaches have made a point of expressing their amazement at the size and the fervour of the support they have received here in France. That aspect of the enterprise probably did reach a high point three days ago because fans had been sourcing tickets for years.

They won’t be as easy to come by in the knockout stages.

The other point to make is that this isn’t a case of Ireland suddenly reaching an Everest. They have beaten the Boks before. They have beaten everyone else before. This was their 16th win on the trot. Beat the Scots and win the quarter-final – neither a sure thing – and they will go into the last four looking to make the decider and break a world record for consecutive wins.

What an achievement that would be.

The point here is that when this Ireland team looks back from their summit that was Saturday night they won't peer down on a sea-level landscape below. They will scan a series of Himalayan peaks that had already felt their footsteps and been claimed by their flag.

The ascents have differed. They played blindingly attractive rugby in winning a series in New Zealand and then dogged out wins against the Boks and Australia last autumn. Wales were flicked aside in Cardiff, they overcame ridiculous adversity in breaking Scotland in Edinburgh and got over a case of the heebie-jeebies in accounting for England in March.

You couldn’t even say that this Ireland team has played its best rugby yet in France, certainly with ball in hand. And how many other sides will be such a pest at their lineouts, or bear down on them with the defensive line speed that is a trademark of South Africa’s. Complacency? It’s hard to imagine it being an issue against Scotland.

Half of this squad was on board when the ship made Japan with a gaping hole in the hull, suffered another breach against the hosts, and eventually sank without trace against the All Blacks in the last eight. The stat about Ireland’s failure to have never made a semi-final has been burned into their brains, as it has the entire island’s.

Make it that far, at least, and this win won’t stand alone.