Major rebuilding job for Ireland looms in aftermath of Rugby World Cup failure
Error-strewn display against All Blacks a chastening end to an underperforming year
For Ireland’s underwhelming and acutely disappointing 2019 Rugby World Cup to have a lasting legacy, for starters this has to hurt, as it assuredly will for these Irish players, both profoundly and for many years to come.
One could understand the warmth shown by the Green Army in Tokyo Stadium on Saturday towards a group of players, and a captain, who have caused so much joy for the last few years, and why the squad felt compelled to acknowledge their extraordinary presence.
That said, it’s impossible to imagine the All Blacks would have done so had they been on the end of a hiding like Ireland’s World Cup record 46-14 defeat. One senses Roy Keane, for one, would not have approved.
In any event, the World Cup has at least three of its four best teams, though as even Warren Gatland acknowledged, France completely let Wales off the hook. Of the four losing quarter-finalists, Japan definitely deserved their lap of honour.
After the unprecedented highs of 2018, this was no way for Rory Best’s career to finish or indeed Joe Schmidt’s. It was a bleak day indeed for all the squad. But this was another bad performance by a good team.
It was hard to maintain the unprecedented high standards of last year. The belief Ireland could defy form and logic, as well as history, by summoning up a big performance, proved misplaced. There had been good performances in the final warm-up game against Wales, the opening win over Scotland and, it seemed, the pick-me-up against Samoa.
But, as it transpired, there wasn’t the bank of recent good work or sufficient momentum going into a game of such magnitude and in a year when England (twice) and Wales had already rocked this team’s confidence, the defeat by Japan proved a blow too many, not least in condemning Ireland to the toughest quarter-final they’ve ever faced.
None of their big players really performed, and none of them showed up in the mixed zone afterwards, although some did do TV interviews. True to type, the young guns such as James Ryan and Josh van der Flier along with, risibly, subs David Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter and Luke McGrath (who played just seven minutes) were instead sent to explain this one away.
Nor was there any appetite for a follow-up briefing from the Irish camp yesterday, although it might have been no bad idea for the new head coach, Andy Farrell, to do so.
Schmidt and Best himself were obliged to do so at the coach/captain post match press conference. In perhaps Schmidt’s most revealing comment, in hindsight he confessed that he let the goal of a first semi-final become too all-embracing.
“Maybe it consumed us a little bit and we got distracted from our game to game focus.”
Best admitted as much too.
“Maybe we have been looking at this for too long and been so focused on it that we forgot to win some of the little battles along the way over the last 12 months.”
This demand for a semi-final went higher than Schmidt too. At the beginning of the year, with Irish rugby still high on the annus mirabilis of 2018, the IRFU’s Performance Director, David Nucifora, declared as much.
“I think we’ve got to do better than we’ve done before, that’s the starting point, isn’t it? We’ve got to get to a semi-final, and obviously we want to go further than that if we can. But I think we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought that anything worse than a semi-final is going to be good for us.”
Everything would be done to that end he said and, with luck, “hopefully we get that but we will have felt that we have prepared really, really well and that we’ll be in a good position to deliver a really good performance in this tournament”.
Viewed in the words of Nucifora then, this World Cup has to be described as a failure.
Maybe though, if there’s one lesson to be learned, it is to not make it into such a defining target. To cool the jets a little.
For Saturday’s was a particularly angst-ridden, error-strewn performance. Even allowing for the unrelenting pressure applied by the All Blacks’ defence, six handling errors in the first half-hour and 17 turnovers in total confirms as much. Ditto Johnny Sexton (twice) and Joey Carbery missing penalties to touch. Schmidt and Richie Murphy cannot go out and take those kicks for them.
Schmidt’s incoming successor, Andy Farrell, along with Simon Easterby and Murphy, are also tarnished by a chastening end to an underperforming year.
As is usually the case after a World Cup cycle, but perhaps more so in the next one given the squad’s age profile, there’s also quite a rebuilding job.
For Rob Kearney, Keith Earls, Johnny Sexton, maybe even Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony, as well as Best and Cian Healy to begin with, this was probably their last World Cup. Yet Irish rugby neither has the depth of talent, nor the luxury of cherry-picking November windows, Six Nations and summer tours.
One of Farrell’s first tasks will be choose a new captain. At 23 James Ryan is the same age as Brian O’Driscoll when he first captained Ireland, before doing so permanently from 24 onwards. Then, as now, there’s a strong case for giving your best player the captaincy if he’s captaincy material.
No less than in 2015-16 though, when no Irish team made the knock-out stages of the European Cup and Ireland finished third in the Six Nations, it will be hard to cure the hangover from this World Cup.
This one will hurt for a while yet, as it has to do.