Irish rugby tidal wave feels almost unstoppable - even against history

Ireland supporters celebrate victory over Scotland. Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images

PARIS -- This feels like an unstoppable green tidal wave making its way to Stade de France on Saturday October 28th.

Ireland notched their 17th straight Test win on Saturday night, accounting for Scotland 36-14 in front of what must have felt like every last one of their countrymen.

Is there anyone left at home to pour the Guinness?

From lunchtime on Friday you couldn't turn a rue in the French capital without spying yet another green jersey. They gathered at the Irish bars that surround the Moulin Rouge from early Saturday morning, and sang, scrummed, drank and dared to dream that their Rugby World Cup destiny -- and one of the country's biggest ever moments in sport full stop -- might be just three more weeks away.

For now, though, they can look no further than a quarterfinal with New Zealand, the same team that halted their charge in Japan four years ago. But while they have been imperious over the last 18 months, stretching all the way back to their series win in New Zealand, no word sends shivers down the spine of an Irish rugby fan quite like "quarterfinal".

For never before has the Emerald Isle tasted the lofty heights of a World Cup semifinal.

Four years ago the wheels were already wobbling after a shock pool loss to the Brave Blossoms, before the All Blacks ran riot in Yokohama to send Ireland packing at the last eight once more.

But they could not be in better form this time around.

Saturday night's win was built on the back of watertight defence. They had broken Scotland's attacking soul inside 30 minutes at the Stade de France, having seen off the best Finn Russell, Duhan van der Merwe and co. could throw at them - the Irish defence not only holding firm, but constantly pushing Scotland backwards and their No. 10 further away from the gainline.

Then, when Ireland had the ball, they struck almost immediately.

"They were just very good," Scotland coach Gregor Townsend said when asked if Ireland had brought something different to Stade de France. "They defended very well; at times we were getting half breaks, making some metres and we had a lot of pressure, went through a lot of phases and they kept their shape, in that first quarter in particular.

"In the second half we did manage to get in behind their defence, but I thought they started really well scoring a try in the first couple of minutes, and then it was a proper Test match in terms of both teams having opportunities for 20 minutes, and they took theirs and they were very clinical in taking them.

"They're the best in the world for a reason, probably the things that stands out from an attacking perspective is when you give them entries into the 22 they're very good at coming away with points and they showed that again tonight."

Ireland's first and second tries were almost carbon copies of one another, as first James Lowe finished in the left-hand corner just 70 seconds after kick-off, before Hugo Keenan found clean air and the line 25 minutes later.

The sweeping left-hand moves included brilliant offloads from Gary Ringrose and Mack Hansen for Lowe's score, before Bundee Aki put his head through the line and found Ringrose again, the Irish centre's second effort better than his first as he shovelled a ball out to Hugo Keenan for the first of the fullback's two tries.

It was then the turn of the forwards, who through Caelan Doris, Andrew Porter and co. had already been toiling defensively and at the breakdown; lock Iain Henderson getting his name on the scoresheet for Ireland's third with a try that could have gone to any player in green from numbers 1 through 8.

When Keenan crossed for his second via sweeping Jonny Sexton pass, the fullback sliding over despite some Scottish cover, Ireland had a 26-0 lead and those few Scottish hearts that hadn't been broken after the opening half hour were now battered beyond repair.

That was evidenced by prop Pierre Schoeman's lone charge down pressure of Sexton's conversion -- and then a complete Scottish dawdle towards the sheds at halftime.

But it got worse.

Shortly after the resumption, Scotland replacement Ollie Smith was yellow-carded for an attempted trip on Sexton, which sparked a brief melee over by the left touchline. It was there that Scotland had virtually their only win of the evening, as Schoeman man-handled Irish hooker Dan Sheehan over the advertising board and onto the blue turf that surrounds the field of play.

But Sheehan had the last laugh, as he sat out by the left touchline to finish off Ireland's fifth try, the hooker taking the final pass from scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park, who now found himself playing on the left wing.

It was a similar script earlier in the year when these two nations met in the Six Nations. On that occasion Ireland were smashed by injuries up front, but still found a way to scrum and lineout with success, and then record a comfortable 22-7 victory on their road to the Grand Slam.

It just seems that this Ireland team has every scenario covered. That no matter what challenge might pop into their passage, they can navigate a path around it. Certainly they had everything Scotland could throw at them covered in Paris, an attack just after the 50-minute mark again unable to breach the Irish line.

It was about then that the Mexican wave rolled around Stade de France. Given how well they have played inside the Parisian cauldron in their two matches at the venue to date, it may well need to be rebranded the Irish wave.

And that's how it feels watching Andy Farrell's side go about their business right now: they resemble a tidal wave of seemingly unstoppable force. They are a team whose 23 players are in perfect harmony with the game plan, their role in it, and the teammates they play alongside.

Take Jack Crowley, for instance, Sexton's backup playmaker who came on shortly after Sheehan's try and soon dropped a perfect cross-kick under immense pressure that put Ringrose over for a deserved five-pointer.

Ireland's defensive line did eventually yield in the final quarter, but only after Farrell had cleared his bench and the game had started to break up. Two tries in two minutes to Ewan Ashman and Ali Price did little for Scotland but add some respectability to the scoreline, though it will give them something to pick up from when they next regroup ahead of the 2024 Six Nations.

But this night was all about their opponents. After 17 straight wins, there can be no self-doubt in this Ireland team. They are, in fact, embracing the expectation; the sight of centre Aki demanding more support and adulation from the travelling fans a sign that they will want exactly the same reception in a week's time.

And that's where it gets tricky. Everyone in Ireland, let alone its hardcore rugby fans, is acutely aware of the fact that the nation has never been past the quarterfinals of the Rugby World Cup in nine previous attempts. There have been greats of the Irish game - take Keith Wood, Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll - come and go, yet not one of them knows what it feels like to be in the last four at the game's showpiece event. This current Irish group can change all that, but they will need to go 80 minutes against a New Zealand team that went very close to running up a ton against Italy and also has a bit of that old All Blacks attacking swagger back.

"I think New Zealand are a fantastic side and for little old Ireland to be talked about in the same bracket shows how far we have come as a playing nation," Ireland coach Andy Farrell said with a straight face. "But the respect we have for New Zealand is through the roof. The form they have right now is top drawer and, as Johnny said before, I'm sure they will be relishing this fixture to try and put a few things right. It's as tough as it gets, two weeks ago it was a tough game [against South Africa] and this one was knock-out rugby."

But the three-time world champions hold few fears for this Irish group, too. Their series win in New Zealand last year is up there with the greatest achievements in the country's sporting history.

They are on the cusp of an even greater prize, however, and have the backing of a travelling green throng that knows it too is a part of something special.

That army in green will descend on Stade de France and Paris again next weekend. The message for the city's bar and bistro owners in the meantime is simple: Double your Guinness order, and then double it again, for Irish nerves will be sky high in seven days' time -- and the air even more rarefied should they finally break that quarterfinal duck.