As the nightmare unfolded I kept hearing two voices in my head. Over and over again came the words of Shane Lowry and Steve Hansen.
“Nobody tells you how to come down the mountain,” said Lowry in the aftermath of winning the British Open at Portrush.
Shane is on the money. If you are not careful you can get lost, and suddenly there is no way back to the standards you expect of yourself, never mind what others are demanding.
Imagine the sense of panic that comes with being unable to do what used to come naturally.
“Let’s see how Ireland handle being number one,” said Hansen late last year.
Now we know.
Through the wreckage we must sift. I am not comparing anybody to Muhammad Ali – not even these brilliant All Blacks – but "The Greatest" could have neatly summed up Ireland at the 2019 World Cup: "The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights."
All the right noises were coming from the camp but our eyes did not deceive us
Ireland never did dance under Tokyo’s neon lights. The winning and losing did not occur these past five weeks in Japan. Not to my mind anyway. Whatever happened or failed to happen was bubbling beneath the surface since January.
Hansen credited Ireland with providing the New Zealand management and players with impetus to change up ahead of the World Cup. They had been desperately searching for a new angle as the constant innovator always does. The team that won in 2015 would not be the team that could win in 2019. That once-in-a-century group, built around Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, with Conrad Smith, Kieran Read and Brodie Retallick adding nuance and guile, had broken up.
The All Blacks needed to become something else, with the second playmaker experiment being tested ever since Carter stood down. Beauden Barrett is a more-than-able replacement, and had Barrett played at 15 in Carter’s team more often I think he could have been an even better fullback than what we are now seeing. Imagine that.
The quality of player around Carter in 2015 was, in my humble opinion, higher than what Barrett is currently working with. The game has changed, defences have improved yet again, and the gap has closed to New Zealand. Honestly, it has. I think that is for the most part about them returning from the dizzying heights of 2015, but they have come down the mountain with an insatiable desire to evolve.
Hansen and his colleagues took their time, looking at different combinations in midfield and backrow before settling on the team that tore Ireland apart last Saturday morning.
Richie Mo’unga’s arrival as the Crusaders’ Super Rugby-winning outhalf enabled a straight swap with Barrett. It took defeat in Dublin for the new way to become clear. They see it now. They see a style Ireland cannot.
Barrett’s left-hand 30-metre pass to his younger brother was one of many stunning pieces of skill we can only admire. Coupled with Mo’unga’s breathtaking array of passing and kicking, they were a joy to behold. For anyone not Irish.
It is easier to change when you can see the wood for the trees. The second Lions test in 2017 was New Zealand’s mid-World Cup cycle warning. The Aviva stadium 11 months ago was the final straw. Hansen, at the very end of 15 years coaching them, changed.
The All Blacks only know one mindset – the constant evolution. None of this guarantees victory over England in what I believe will be the clash of the tournament that everyone hoped Ireland versus New Zealand would be.
Let’s be frank. Every Irish player – to a man – suffered a deeply concerning dip in form in the months following victory over the world champions last year. There is no need to list them. Everyone suffered, be it due to injury or whatever else, with a collective malaise in place since the England game in February. All the right noises were coming from the camp but our eyes did not deceive us. Not in Cardiff. Not against Saracens in Newcastle. Certainly not in Shizuoka against Japan. Nor Kobe against Russia.
Dedication to the game plan was excessive but, again, not the unwinding of this World Cup campaign
Deep-rooted performance issues took hold and nobody could turn the ship around as the 2018 Grand Slam winners became a shadow of their previously impenetrable selves.
Ireland's malfunction at this World Cup was not down to selection. Any and all debates about who should or shouldn't have started is a moot point. No amount of changes in personnel would have altered the end result. That said, I do feel sorry for Andrew Conway and Rhys Ruddock. They earned more game time than they were given but that wouldn't have stopped Barrett, Mo'unga and the All Blacks.
So where did it all go wrong?
Privy to this answer
Sadly, we will not be privy to this answer, if one is ever found, at least until the autobiographies hit book shelves. I wish Ireland had adopted a constant evolution. It would have been so much fun to have seen Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery on the pitch together.
Sliding doors: Joey does not leave Leinster so Stuart Lancaster conjures up an attacking strategy that was less about numbers on backs and more about ensuring Sexton and Carbery keep defences guessing. It proves so irresistible that Joe Schmidt adds his creative spark to the new dual threat and Ireland's attack becomes as unpredictable as it is deadly.
That would have needed to happen in February. Injury is a curse. But selection did not undo Ireland. Dedication to the game plan was excessive but, again, not the unwinding of this World Cup campaign. If players on the pitch had taken the right options, and completed basic skills of the game – catch and pass – anything was possible.
We know this to be true because of all the great days during the Schmidt decade. The players failed to hit the essential mental pitch. The highly motivated gang that won in Twickenham and beat New Zealand were gone.
We could see the same men. But they were gone mentally.
It's vital you find periods of time doing next to nothing, away from rugby, so the mental battery can recharge. So you can climb back up the mountain
Joe, for the first time, openly admitted the squad has been flat all year. I wonder out loud, with absolutely no insight to the inner workings of a tight knit group, did they become too close? Can there be free commentary between peers if the working relationship is blurred by friendship?
A player must have incredible confidence in his own ability and standing within a team to voice any concerns to a coach at any level. This does not mean such conversations do not happen – I’m sure they did – but perhaps they focused on the wrong topics.
It's easy to say "ah well, nothing could be done against these All Blacks". That guarantees no progress. To get up off the floor, Ireland under Andy Farrell must dig deep into what went wrong. The previous generation did this after 2007 but not before we wasted 2008.
New broom can be a positive
Schmidt remains Ireland’s greatest coach – certainly the most impressive I’ll ever know – but the new broom can be a positive. Farrell will take this team in a much-needed new direction but only if they identify and address internal problems that manifested themselves on the field these past nine months.
No one person is omnipotent. For a team to stay flat for this long, and the elephant in the room to be ignored, is a worry. We can only analyse what we see and hear. We watched on, aghast, as the downward spiral happened. We all heard uber-positive words from senior and junior men in the camp. Occasionally Rory Best would break ranks and admit to the most obvious problems - as he did after losing to Japan - but that was about it.
To the players, the temptation is to get back on the horse straight away. Don't. Take as much time as possible away from the game
It takes a monumental physical and mental effort to beat the All Blacks. Again, we know this. Irish players are cared for better than any other team in the world, so where were they at psychologically? Maybe the stress was just too much. I know how it feels. It’s vital you find periods of time doing next to nothing, away from rugby, so the mental battery can recharge. So you can climb back up the mountain.
I genuinely believe there were plans to evolve during the Six Nations, but having being floored by England the next four games became about dealing with the fear of failure. Instead of keeping one eye on Japan the team got mired in the immediate problem of not losing at Murrayfield or home to France. Even in Rome you could see it, and the Italians sensed it, they just couldn't finish Ireland off.
I believe the game plan was not the primary problem but it became the rock Ireland perished upon. It doesn’t matter what walk of life you are in, nobody can see into your head and if you don’t feed information to those around you then they will assume and presume. This rarely makes for a happy ending.
So if Ireland peaked in November, as everyone now believes, be open about the mistakes so redemption can begin.
New Zealand got it wrong at four World Cups. There has been one tournament when we were genuine contenders. 2011 still feels like the one that got away because right now, despite so many good things going on in Irish rugby, we lack the strength in depth to reach a World Cup final.
Maybe, with genuine investment in our club game, we might get there one day.
Apologies for ending with a string of clichés, but they ring true: Ireland is a small nation that punches way above its weight. We are overachievers and some day, possible 2023 or 2027, the stars will align as we overachieve at the World Cup.
To the players, the temptation is to get back on the horse straight away. Don’t. Take as much time as possible away from the game. Let your competitive instincts run dry. Live a little. Come back with a clear head.