Cast your mind back four years. Rugby World Cup 2011. Ireland came up against a misfiring force of world rugby. It was the fixture that had focused the minds for two years. Ireland shook off indifferent form, stared their World Cup ghosts in the face and summoned a titanic performance of grit and bravery, full of bulldozing tackles. Our outhalf who finished that game was emotional after victory. The win spared Ireland a quarterfinal against a Southern Hemisphere giant.
And what happened in that quarterfinal? Ireland were outthought and outfought by Wales. That great 15-6 win against Australia was consigned to the dustbin of famous but ultimately pointless one-off Ireland rugby victories.
Ireland had its heart (O'Connell) and its brain (Sexton) ripped from it before halftime yesterday, yet either in spite of, or because of, the introduction of Madigan, Henderson, and later Henry, they were clearly a better team in the second half. It was an unbelievable half, one of the most unbelievable halves in Irish sporting history, but was it surprising? When have the Irish rugby team ever failed to display guts or courage? It's the thread that links the amateur and professional eras of Irish rugby. Ireland were also up against a callow French team lacking invention and brains. While they had Ireland hanging on for dear life in the closing stages of last year's Six Nations, France wilted spectacularly in the final quarter in the face of Ireland's phenomenal desire. Ireland have now beaten France times in a row.
Since the draw was announced in 2012, the France game has been viewed as sort of World Cup crossroads. Win and Ireland would avoid the All Blacks and embark on a possible path to the final. Lose it and Ireland would go out in the quarterfinals as they always do. Ireland have repeated their achievement in 2011 by winning their pool and now an Argentina team who've beat the Springboks this year, who have World Cup hoodoo over Ireland, stand in the way of a semifinal against Australia (sorry Scotland).
Progress for Ireland at this World Cup is defined pretty clearly - a quarterfinal win. Formidable opposition awaits. As Joe Schmidt and the Ireland squad will tell you, yesterday's heroics won't count for much unless Argentina are next to be put to the sword. Whatever about the injury list, Ireland's biggest challenge may be the emotional hangover from beating France.