LONDON (Reuters) - Ireland laboured to a 16-9 victory over Italy to reach the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals on Sunday, taking France along with them and setting up a blockbuster Pool D decider in Cardiff next weekend.
As the host nation started to come to terms with the fact that England will not be among the final eight after Saturday’s defeat by the Wallabies, the Irish and French joined New Zealand, Australia and Wales in the knockout stages.
Argentina had Diego Maradona cheering them on as they all but assured their progression from Pool C with a 45-16 thumping of Tonga at the Leicester City Stadium.
Ireland did not have anyone nearly as famous as the football great backing them at London’s Olympic Stadium but their green-clad legion of fans made up in quantity for what they lacked in star quality.
The Six Nations champions were unable to match the passion of their support with their performance but one slick try from centre Keith Earls and 11 points from the boot of flyhalf Jonny Sexton got the job done.
Italy, lifted by the return of the inspirational Sergio Parisse, stuck doggedly to their task and were denied a try and the lead early in the second half by a clutch tackle from Irish flanker Peter O’Mahony on lock Josh Furno.
“We’re in the quarter-finals so that’s great for us,” Ireland captain Paul O’Connell said.
“Probably a disappointing performance, I think we just dropped too many balls and when we do that we can’t play our game.
“France have played some good rugby and we’re going to have to improve massively on that performance.”
Ireland and France both have 14 points from their first three matches and next Sunday’s clash in Cardiff is almost certain to send the losers into a quarter-final against reigning champions New Zealand.
The winners will probably face an Argentina side who looked far from a soft option after another convincing Pool C performance.
The Pumas ran in five tries to ensure that only an upset of the All Blacks by Tonga combined with an equally unthinkable slip-up against Namibia can prevent them from taking their place in the knockout stages for the third successive World Cup.
The Tongans played a full part in an entertaining first half by matching Argentina’s tally of two tries but the Pumas, inspired by flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez’s man of the match performance, pulled clear after the break.
Sanchez scored a try and kicked 20 points to the delight of his country’s most famous sporting number 10, Maradona, who joined the Pumas to celebrate in the dressing-room.
“He told us that if we get to semi-finals he will come (to see us again), he put the bar high for us,” Argentina captain Agustin Creevy said with a grin.
Argentina are second in the pool on 10 points, four behind the All Blacks with Tonga third on six.
Australia and Wales went through to the quarter-finals courtesy of the emphatic victory by the Wallabies over England on Saturday, which resulted in the first exit at the pool stage of a sole host nation in the history of the tournament.
As social media went into overdrive with jokes making fun of England’s misery, the knives were out for coach Stuart Lancaster.
Chief executive Ian Ritchie said the Rugby Football Union would not be making any knee-jerk decisions but former England forward Dean Ryan thought it naive to believe Lancaster could survive.
“There will be blood. Of course there will,” he wrote on the Guardian website. “You don’t fumble your own World Cup without even getting to the end of the pool stage and then survive.”
It remains to be seen what impact England’s absence from the latter stages will have on a tournament that was billed as the first billion dollar rugby festival.
“I know there are a lot of people that have come from all over the world to be at the World Cup,” All Blacks hooker Keven Mealamu told reporters in Newcastle.
“Hopefully, there is still a lot of interest here in England. It will be interesting to see how much of a difference it makes.”
Monday is a break day for the tournament before the action resumes on Tuesday with Canada’s game against Romania in Leicester and Fiji’s clash with Uruguay in Milton Keynes.
Editing by Ed Osmond