YOKOHAMA, 22 Sep – Ireland are back, gloriously so, and on this evidence they could be sticking around in Japan until the business end of the tournament. They were ruthlessly efficient in putting Scotland away long before half-time and they can dare to dream of greater challenges ahead.
This was nothing short of a demolition job, a performance to catch the attention not only of South Africa – who will almost certainly face Ireland in the quarter-finals – but also the clear favourites New Zealand.
It was a physical contest and with the Japan match next up on Saturday, Ireland must wait for fitness reports on flanker Peter O’Mahony and centre Bundee Aki, who went off after head injury assessments.
Schmidt was not getting too far ahead of himself and was quick to praise the rivals who did battle on the same pitch on Saturday. “I thought it was a heavyweight contest last night (New Zealand v South Africa). We might be light-heavyweight or middleweight,” he said.
His team look to have timed their recovery from a worrying dip in form quite beautifully. Their line speed was devastatingly quick and with Finn Russell’s threat negated, Scotland could barely muster any front-foot ball.
If Ireland are to advance to beyond the quarter-final for the first time, they will need quality set-piece ball. Their lineout, shaky of late, delivered that attacking platform after five minutes with the emerging colossus James Ryan claiming Rory Best’s throw to the middle.
In a flash, Ryan’s second-row partner Iain Henderson was thundering ahead, beating two defenders. With Scotland in disarray as their line was pounded, it was Ryan who got over for the try. There was a pleasing symmetry in the move, with the 23-year-old Ryan becoming the youngest player from an Ireland tight five to score a World Cup try.
That was only the beginning. Next, Ireland captain Rory Best got on the end of a dominant lineout maul and forced his way over to become at 37 years and 37 days the fourth oldest try-scorer in World Cup history.
Scrum-half Greig Laidlaw finally put some Scotland points on the board after their back three combined well to force a penalty, but it was nothing but a glimmer of hope and soon there was none.
Tight-head prop Tadhg Furlong barrelled over from a metre out after Ireland again won the scrum battle. With Conor Murray taking over the kicking duties because of a niggle to Johnny Sexton, the conversion was good and Ireland were out of sight at 19-3.
With Murray’s tactical kicking first-class and CJ Stander back to his rampaging best, Ireland finished the half with a tackle success rate of 96 per cent.
Any prospect of a Scotland comeback disappeared five minutes after the restart when John Barclay knocked on close to Ireland’s line. Replacement props Andew Porter and Dave Kilcoyne came off the bench in time for the scrum and underlined Ireland’s impressive strength in depth by winning it.
"Sometimes what happens is that you build a lead and then lose a bit of cohesion when guys start filtering in and out. I didn't really detect that that happened," Schmidt said.
With rain falling, winger Andrew Conway secured the bonus-point try after Scotland number eight Ryan Wilson failed to claim a high ball, Jordan Larmour stole it and it ended with Conway in the right corner.
Scotland were unable to force a consolation try and Townsend’s team will need to be substantially better to get past Japan in the final match of the pool.
For Ireland, the excitement will continue for a while yet.