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Ireland's miserable record at Rugby World Cups rolls on in Tokyo

‘Maybe you put too much pressure on,’ said Ireland captain Rory Best after the latest defeat.

THERE IS VALUE in digging into the details, in sifting through the moments that Ireland lost, each of them adding up to a resounding 46-14 defeat to the All Blacks in a World Cup quarter-final.

Dropped balls, missed touch kicks, inaccurate running lines – there are many disastrous technical and tactical aspects when one reflects on this hammering at the hands of a superb Kiwi side.

But the big question that sits over the top of it all revolves around Ireland and World Cup quarter-finals.

In short, Ireland’s history at Rugby World Cups simply isn’t good enough.

the-ireland-team-dejected-in-tokyo-stadium-after-the-game Ireland endured more World Cup misery in Tokyo. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Even by their own targets, Ireland are now failing.

The IRFU’s latest strategic plan released last year set out World Cup semi-finals or better in both 2019 and 2023 as the priority aim. 

Everything Joe Schmidt and IRFU performance director David Nucifora have done in recent years has been driven in large part by the desire to succeed at the World Cup. Instead, Ireland have failed again.

Today was the seventh time Ireland have lost a World Cup quarter-final. Add in a quarter-final play-off defeat in 1999 and the failure to get out of the pool in 2007 and it’s very clear that Irish rugby has a crippling issue with World Cups.

Schmidt can fairly point to the loss of five key players through injury and suspension in the 2015 quarter-final defeat to Argentina – though Ireland played poorly in scraping past Italy in the pool stages – but there are fewer qualifying factors in other losses.

It was to Ireland’s misfortune that they met a Kiwi side brimming with quality in Tokyo but the fact that Schmidt’s side made repeated basic errors and failed to fire a shot until the game was well over suggested that the occasion was too much for them.

“I’m not sure,” was Rory Best’s answer when asked what it is about World Cup knock-out games that Irish rugby players struggle so much with.

“Everyone talks about the pressure that’s on the All Blacks before quarter-finals but when you haven’t won one and you feel you have a great coaching set-up and great group of players, then maybe you put too much pressure on.

“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.

jonathan-sexton-dejected-after-the-game Johnny Sexton and his team-mates had a tough night. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“We wanted to set a bar than no Irish team has met before. We’ve done that numerous times over the six and a half years with Joe. It was an onus on us to win a quarter-final because then it becomes a habit.

“We talked about it years ago. I remember Paul O’Connell saying when we beat France three times in-a-row leading into the last World Cup that it then becomes a habit because you expect to beat France. Before that, they always seemed to be the team that stopped us winning grand slams.

“With Joe, he helped take away a bit of the fear factor that the All Blacks held in the last three Tests. But when you do that, they see you coming a lot more and when you get the best team in the world fully prepared and fully focused on you, it becomes that little bit more difficult.

“And when you make a few errors and you let them get their tails up it becomes even more difficult.”

That Ireland had built this World Cup up too much in their heads from too far out was something Schmidt also highlighted post-match, suggesting that this was more a mental failing that anything else. 

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Certainly, Ireland’s error count underlined as much. It really doesn’t matter what a team’s style of play is when they can’t catch the ball or kick their penalties over the touchline to get their lineout attack firing.

Ireland will have to wait four long years before they get their next chance to make “a habit” out of winning a World Cup knock-out game, although no one knows what the future holds under Andy Farrell as he takes over from Schmidt as head coach.

rob-kearney-dejected Rob Kearney played in his final World Cup game for Ireland. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Certainly, the rebuild comes with strong foundations from the Schmidt era and with a crop of young players such as James Ryan, Garry Ringrose, Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Porter, Joey Carbery, Jordan Larmour, and others who Farrell can build around.

The shame is that these youngsters have now been tarnished by Irish rugby’s quarter-final woe and they too will feel the “pressure” Best mentioned to finally be the ones to lift the longstanding underachievement. 

The wait for 2023 will feel interminable at times and this latest quarter-final exit goes down as another missed opportunity to win new supporters for the sport in Ireland.

Instead, this latest underperformance on the biggest stage will likely turn people off.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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