LONDON, 5 Oct – The extent of Ireland’s stuttering in their win over Italy on Sunday was signified by a notable intake of breath from fly-half Jonathan Sexton.
Asked whether the Irish, having hours earlier booked their place in the quarter-finals at a World Cup for the seventh time, were now confident of beating France in their final Pool D match, Sexton paused for a moment then admitted he had not even considered it.
It said much about Italy’s do-or-die attitude in their 16-9 defeat at Olympic Park and how hard Ireland, Six Nations champions in the last two seasons, had to battle to secure victory in the lowest scoring game of the tournament thus far.
"We know we are a pretty good team on our day when we play well," Sexton said. "Italy caught us a little bit by surprise and they tested us in ways we hadn't seen previously.
"They have many similarities to the French team in how strong they are up front, in the scrum and maul. We are going to have to deal with France a lot better than we did against Italy."
The ease with which the Azzurri were able to take the ball wide, a lack of Irish discipline, their offloads in attack and decisions to kick late in the game, were all problem areas acknowledged by Sexton (pictured), who along with Italian counterpart Tommaso Allan kicked three penalties:
"We are always very hard on ourselves and with each other. Honesty is probably the key word. It's all down to this weekend and that's where we wanted to be at the start of the tournament."
Countdown to showdown
As the countdown began to Sunday’s showdown - the winners are likely to avoid world champions New Zealand in the quarter-finals - Sexton offered an insight into the dangers posed by France, perennial participants at the business end of World Cups:
"The World Cup is huge over there. The Six Nations is almost like a burden on them in the middle of a Top 14 season. It's almost like they build for this and they use players throughout the Six Nations year-on-year to be able to have this big pool for the World Cup.
"You can see from their previous results how many semi-finals and finals they have been in. Arguably they should have won the last World Cup and they were in turmoil during the pool stages.
"We have to be aware of all these things, but at the same time we have to concentrate on ourselves."