Why are we obssessed by World Cup failures? There are plenty of other things to win in rugby

Ireland’s record in World Cups is awful but their record in between tournaments is exceptional compared to the dark old days of the ’90s.

Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THE ENTIRE IRELAND squad linked arms and stretched out beyond the 10-metre line.

“Kikiki! Kakaka!” the yell came from 23 throats dressed all in black.

But the Irish players ignored it, choosing that moment as their signal to take two steps forward, their symbolic way of getting their message across. New Zealand were performing the haka, Ireland weren’t prepared to be pushed backwards.

And they weren’t. By the time we’d moved to the haka’s rousing conclusion, you couldn’t hear a thing from the men in black, a chorus of The Fields of Athenry circling the stadium, drowning out the noise generated by the visitors.

Those cheers would get louder after the opening passage of the game, ignited by a superb dummy by Hugo Keenan, carries by James Ryan and Iain Henderson, the passing skills of Ringrose, a charge by Andrew Conway. Ireland went to the New Zealand 22 and the decibel levels went to a level we haven’t heard at an Irish rugby match since 2018.

That was the last time New Zealand came here. They lost then too. By the time Ronan Kelleher was thieving the ball away from Sam Whitelock’s fingertips on 10 minutes, you knew you were about to because you’ve seen these things so often before.

hugo-keenan-celebrates-caelan-doris-scoring-a-try Ireland celebrate their win at the end. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

2001 – the first win over France at Lansdowne Road since 1983, followed by the foot-and-mouth delayed victory over England.

November, 2002 – everyone singing and dancing in the rain after Ronan O’Gara got one over Eddie Jones’ Australian world champions.

November 2004 – the first win over South Africa in nearly half-a-century.

November 2006 – back-to-back wins over the Wallabies and Springboks.

March 2007 – Croke Park, England downed.

March 2009 – the first grand slam since 1948.

March 2014, March 2015, March 2018 – three more Six Nations titles notched up on the honours board.

November 2016, November 2018 and now November 2021 – three separate wins over New Zealand. Remember it took 111 years for Ireland to get their first.

We haven’t even mentioned the provincial successes, Ulster, Munster and then Leinster grabbing seven European Cups between them, Connacht getting the first trophy of their history in 2016, Ireland’s provinces winning 13 of the 20 editions of the Celtic League/Pro14/United Rugby Championship.

In contrast, Scottish sides have won the URC just once. The Scotland national team haven’t even finished runner-up since five nations became six in 2000; they haven’t beaten New Zealand once, let alone three times; none of their clubs have reached a European final, let alone win it.

Yet, when the radio talk shows crank up again this week, you can bet your bottom dollar that either the host or the guest will mention the supposed stain on the Irish character, that the national team has never made it to a World Cup semi-final.

jamison-gibson-park-and-sevu-reece-battle-to-ground-the-ball Gibson-Park and Sevu Reece compete. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

Well, Scotland have. But would Scottish fans swap their experience of a quarter-final victory over Western Samoa in 1991 for everything that Ireland has achieved in the last 20 years?

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The Scots were beaten by South Africa yesterday, their 14th defeat out of 15 against the Springboks. In contrast, Ireland have won six of their last 10 against the reigning world champions.

They’ve also won a Test series in Australia; they’ve won four Six Nations titles and been runner-up on seven other occasions. Since 2000, Ireland have finished in the top half of the table on 20 occasions, Scotland just four times, Wales 10.

Yet Ireland have never reached a World Cup semi-final and the Scots have, as on three occasions have the Welsh. But away from World Cups, Wales’ record against the Southern Hemisphere big three is appalling. They haven’t beaten the All Blacks since 1953, losing all 19 of their games to New Zealand this century. They’ve won five out of their last 24 games with the Springboks, four out of 23 against Australia.

Their return of six Championship titles this century compared to Ireland’s four tells a different story yet the story of Wales’ Six Nations campaigns have been one of serious inconsistency. When the mood has taken them, they’ve maximised their opportunities. They’ve also spent 12 of their last 22 seasons in the bottom half of the table.

Away from international rugby, the Welsh clubs have done diddly squat in Europe, their record there as miserable as the Scots.

We can go on. Argentina have made it to two World Cup semi-finals but what else have they ever done in international rugby?

We can go back. Prior to this century, the decade before it was bleak for Irish rugby, Ireland finishing last or second last in each of the Five Nations championships. That was the decade they lost every game they played to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and France. Italy beat them three times out of four, Scotland 10 times out of 11.

Generations of Irish rugby fans don’t know what it was like to watch a losing team. They’ve been spoiled by consistency, steady-Eddie type growth. Three times out of five now Ireland have beaten New Zealand. Days like yesterday have become common place in Lansdowne Road and the Aviva Stadium. So, yeah, okay it’s an embarrassment that they have never won a World Cup quarter-final, a trend that will probably continue in 2023, given how tough a draw they have been handed.

And yes, World Cups are the biggest stage in the sport, where ever lasting legacies are made.

But there’s a lot of rugby played in between tournaments. And Ireland just happen to play it particularly well.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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