Rugby World Cup: Ireland once again facing a formidable glass ceiling

Andy Farrell’s side must go where no Irish team has gone before in nine previous World Cups if they are to breach the quarter-final hoodoo

The upside of previous Rugby World Cups is that Ireland have won more matches than they have lost over every competition reaching back to the amateur days. Played 40 won 24, lost 16.

The downside is the recurring bad dream every four years. Of the nine played since the first tournament in 1987, Ireland have been stopped at the quarter-finals seven times and twice didn’t even reach that stage.

In 1999, when matches against USA, Australia and Romania were played in Lansdowne Road, Ireland travelled to Lens in France and were beaten in the now defunct quarter-final playoff stage by Argentina. Then, in 2007, Ireland failed to make it out of the pool phase, losing to both hosts France and Argentina in Pool D.

The fact that Ireland have been a strong side at world level between competitions, as evidenced by winning Six Nations Grand Slams and beating all the Tier One nations, has made the World Cup wasteland a running sore for a string of Irish coaches and squads. Noted for his directness, Steve Hansen, who won the competition with New Zealand in 2015, didn’t hold back when laying it on earlier this year.


“If it was the All Blacks, they would probably be called ‘chokers’,” said Hansen.

And he also issued a note of caution if Ireland do make it past this year’s quarter-final.

“If they [Ireland] get through to the semi-finals, then they are in new territory,” he said. “That is something they will have to deal with that they’ve never dealt with before, and it is always hard to deal with something you haven’t dealt with before.”

Even the world number one-ranking couldn’t break the curse. When Ireland defeated Wales in September 2019 in Dublin, the team were installed as the number one side for the first time. Ireland held the top position entering the 2019 Rugby World Cup. But as history shows, even that wasn’t enough. Each World Cup was different but Ireland have developed an eerie pattern for having them end the same.


The tournament comprised the seven members of the IRFB, which included Ireland, and nine teams were invited, although South Africa were excluded because of their Apartheid regime.

Ireland’s luck was written early on when coach Mick Doyle suffered a heart attack at the opening dinner and was replaced by Syd Millar. Co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand, two Michael Kiernan penalties was all Ireland could muster as Wales won 13-6 in the first World Cup match Ireland ever played.

A 46-19 win over Canada and a 32-9 win over Tonga was good enough for a quarter-final against Australia at the Concord Oval in Sydney. The co-hosts were considered firm favourites to win and, despite tries from fullback Hugo McNeil and Michael Kiernan, as well as a penalty and two conversions from Kiernan, Australia’s four tries and the boot of Michael Lynagh proved sufficient for the home side to triumph 33-15, thus beginning Ireland’s undistinguished quarter-final record.


Dublin was one of the venues in a co-hosting between England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France. By virtue of reaching the quarter-final in the 1987 World Cup, Ireland automatically qualified with virtually the same team pool, Samoa replacing Tonga the only difference.

Coached by Ciaran Fitzgerald and captained by Philip Matthews, Ireland raced through the opening games against Zimbabwe and Japan in Lansdowne Road and travelled to Murrayfield only to fall to Scotland.

Still, it set up a quarter-final against Australia in Dublin in a match that saw Ireland almost get the job done. Jim Staples kicked the grubber, Jack Clarke bumped David Campese, gathered the ball and threw to Gordon Hamilton who raced 40 metres, rode the tackle of Rob Egerton and scored in the corner to make it 16-15. Ralph Keyes converted for 18-5. Could Ireland hold on for a famous win? No. Lynagh hit straight back and Ireland lost by a point, 19-18.


Hosted for the first time by one country in South Africa, Ireland were placed in Pool C alongside New Zealand. Gerry Murphy was head coach and hooker Terry Kingston the captain. New faces had been introduced such as 23-year-olds Keith Wood and Paul Wallace and 21-year-old Anthony Foley. It was known as the last Irish team of the amateur era.

Having defeated Wales to emerge from their pool as runners-up in Johannesburg, Ireland moved to Durban to face France in the quarter-finals. There was a logical enough theory doing the rounds. It was that heading back to sea level after being almost 2,000m above it in Ellis Park would suit the Irish. But Ireland were not an 80 minute team and, having trailed by just three points at halftime (12-15) they ended up on the wrong side of a 36-12 beating.


Wales hosted the first World Cup of the professional era, which expanded from 16 to 20 teams. Ireland, secured second place in Pool E easily with big wins over the Americans and Romanians but shipped a 3-23 defeat to Australia at Lansdowne Road. That catapulted Warren Gatland’s Ireland into a quarter-final play off with Argentina.

Not for the last time it would end badly against Argentina in a match that was subsequently referred to as the ‘Disaster in Lens’. Argentina had never beaten Ireland in two previous meetings. But in a scrappy and error-strewn game, a try from Diego Albanese on 72 minutes had Ireland trailing and finally heaving 15-man lineouts to no avail in a match that simply went horribly wrong. Out before the quarter-final. They say Gatland didn’t get out of bed for three days when he got home.


The fifth Rugby World Cup took place in Australia. Geordan Murphy suffered a compound fracture of his left tibia and Rob Henderson ruptured a bicep in the run-up to the tournament and didn’t make the plane. Argentina were opponents again, but this time in the group stages.

It was a tight encounter but, with the help of an Alan Quinlan try and kicks from David Humphries and Ronan O’Gara, Ireland prevailed 16-15 and finished second to Australia to set up a last-eight meeting with France in Melbourne. Going into the break 27-0 in arrears, two second-half tries from Brian O’Driscoll and one from centre partner Kevin Maggs was reward for a much-improved effort. But by then it was too late as Ireland lost out 43-21.


In hindsight, it didn’t feel comfortable for Ireland and Eddie O’Sullivan’s team from the beginning. An upgrade at the hotel in which the team were supposed to stay was not finished and the team were placed in a soulless building on the outskirts of Bordeaux.

Pool D was, of course, also the pool of death with Ireland, Argentina and France each vying for the just two places in the knockout stages. Namibia and Georgia were not expected to figure but that changed when Ireland stuttered but managed to fall over the line 14-10 against the latter.

Things took a more serious turn when Ulster prop Simon Best, brother of Rory, was hospitalised with a heart issue before playing against Argentina. It augured badly for Ireland. France won the match 25-3 in St Denis before Argentina went to win in Parc des Princes 30-15 and eliminate Ireland from a World Cup for the second time.


Coach Declan Kidney travelled to New Zealand with a poor enough record for the nine games that year, winning just three and losing six, with Brian O’Driscoll as captain.

Pool C was composed of Australia, Ireland, Italy, Russia and the United States. History suggested a predictable outcome until a shock win by Ireland over Australia propelled them to the top of the pool. That meant facing Wales and not South Africa in the quarter-final. The luck of the Irish.

But Gatland and Shaun Edwards had Ireland pegged and Irish players were chopped down at the gain line chasing a 22-10 scoreline. Dan Lydiate made 24 tackles, Sam Warburton 18. And so, it unfolded, the golden generation’s chance of reaching a World Cup semi-final against a French side who were in revolt with their coach, went down in flames to Gatland.


Coach Joe Schmidt brought a different kind of confidence. Detailed and demanding, the Irish defence had narrowly won that year’s Six Nations on points difference.

Ireland’s main rivals in Pool D were France, who they beat 24-9 in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium in a bruising final pool match that took its toll on the Irish players. That set up Argentina – again – in the quarter-finals.

And without Sean O’Brien, suspended for punching France’s Pacal Papé, and the injured Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony, Johnny Sexton and Jared Payne, a patched-up Ireland were blitzed in the opening quarter with left wing Juan Imhoff ripping through the defence.

Argentina led 17-0 after 13 minutes and Ireland never recovered. A Geordan Murphy try brought it back to three points but Argentina skipped clear again and the 43-20 scoreline didn’t flatter the Pumas.


A milestone of sorts for Schmidt as Ireland entered the tournament as the world’s number one-ranked team. Expectations soared. A sound 27-3 win over Scotland in the first match sent Ireland on their way. With only the hosts Japan to beat , Ireland would be in a strong position to win Pool A.

But, in one of the great World Cup upsets, Japan, on a hot humid day, kept the ball alive to win 19-12. Coming second in the pool meant a quarter-final draw with New Zealand.

As the Guardian noted: “They [New Zealand] were as outstanding as the Irish were inept and will now face England in the last four. For Ireland, it’s yet another dismal failure to win a knockout match at a Rugby World Cup. They didn’t show up today and were punished accordingly.” The final result? 46-14.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times