There was a sense of stagnation about Ireland’s sixth quarter-final defeat in the Rugby World Cup. The bitter blow means that Ireland is still the only home nation never to have reached the semi-final of the competition.
To make matters worse, Ireland have not been knocked out of their last three quarter-finals by New Zealand but rather Wales, France and Argentina. All are teams that Ireland has traditionally been on level terms with over the past fifteen years. For one reason or another, Ireland have not got the job done.
Ireland had not lost to Argentina since the 2007 World Cup when they were dumped out of a nightmare tournament in the group stages. That included an Irish tour of Argentina just last year where Ireland won both matches against the Pumas on home soil. Yet Ireland failed to bring their game to the biggest stage here and were outclassed, losing 43-20.
It is easy to be reactionary and point to fundamental structures that are wrong in Irish rugby but Ireland did a lot of the right things in the build-up to this World Cup. Ireland have won the last two Six Nations Championships and while this World Cup has proven that European rugby is at a lower standard than the Southern Hemisphere, it is still no mean feat.
It was not so much Ireland’s Six Nations performances that garnered so much hope but rather performances against the Southern Hemisphere in test matches. In last year’s Autumn Internationals, Ireland defeated Australia and South Africa. It is also hard to forget Ireland’s heroic performance against the All Blacks when they were denied a first ever victory against rugby’s number one team.
It seems like this edition of the World Cup came a little too late for the Irish team. They did not hit their peak at this tournament at all. The warm-up games were unconvincing, as was the grind against Italy in the group stages. One half against a poorly organised French side seemed to convince everyone that Ireland would return to the 2013 team that matched the All Blacks.
However it soon became clear that this was not the same team that hit its peak in 2013. Injury was the main reason for the change in the starting eleven. The bruising game against the French took out Ireland’s talismanic leader Paul O’Connell and denied him a swansong. Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahoney were missing, probably Ireland’s two best players in the previous game. Then Sexton – an undeniably crucial player in Joe Schmidt’s gameplan – was the biggest loss of them all.
It is also worth noting that Ireland had a centre pairing of Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy in 2013. With 215 Irish caps between them, their retirements left a massive void in the Irish team. Ireland really struggled in the centre area over the course of the tournament and what they would have done for a moment of magic by a peak O’Driscoll against Argentina. It is a transitional period for Irish centres with 22 year-old Robbie Henshaw still learning from every game.
Caught up in the euphoria of the French win, a 40 minute performance against the old enemy greatly exaggerated the ability of the Irish bench to replace, essentially, irreplaceable players. Missing key players also meant a lack of quality to bring off the bench because the usual impact substitutes were already on the pitch. Ireland looked spent as Argentina ran riot in the last ten minutes.
The injury to Johnny Sexton at out-half, who had been named in the team earlier in the week, was a massive setback. All hopes instead were placed on Ian Madigan to produce a world-class performance of the kind Sexton has been churning out regularly over the past five or six years. With no disrespect to Madigan, Sexton is a dominant kind of player in the way that he is not. Madigan’s errors when Ireland were only three points down proved costly by the end of the game.
On Off the Ball on Newstalk last week, Brian O’Driscoll spoke about how poorly Ireland were organised in attack in 2011. He pointed to the uncertainty over the fly-half – whether to pick Ronan O’Gara or Sexton – as one of the main reasons for their poor performance against Wales. That confusion, especially with no Sexton, a tactical leader on the pitch, cannot have helped the Irish backline against Argentina.
On the day, Argentina were excellent. It seems like everyone had imagined a different Argentina team to come out, essentially a stronger Italian-style team with a better kicker. Instead they gave Ireland a run-around with the ball in hand like great French sides of the past and played with flair and panache in their back-line.
They brought their game to the biggest occasion yet again, something that Ireland will envy. Again, Argentina has mastered the art of peaking at a tournament, if there is such a thing as an art of peaking. Peaking at a tournament is essentially a volatile and uncompromising exercise. Injuries have put paid to this effort. Unfortunately, Ireland will have to wait four long years for another crack at it.