Ireland's Donncha O'Callaghan reacts to his teams loss to Wales. AP Photo/Rob Griffith

Ireland's Rugby World Cup adventure: the post-mortem

They topped the group for the first time, beat a Tri-Nations side in the southern hemisphere and made a lot of friends. But was it a success?

Reproduced with permission from Whiff of Cordite

WE HAVE NEVER felt such a sense of disappointment, heartache and anticlimax as that on Saturday morning.

All the momentum, all the great work in the pools – all gone.  Ireland are on the plane home.

WoC predicted a quarter-final exit for Ireland, but we certainly didn’t see it panning out the way it did.

Ireland finish up in or around par, but it was both much better than that, and yet, so, so disappointing.

First, the good: Ireland made a greater impact at the tournament than ever before.  They topped their group for the first time ever.  They beat one of the Tri-Nations in, if not quite their own patch, their own continent.

And they were the darlings of the host nation for their magnificent and numerous support.

Credit is due to the management for preparing and selecting the team so well.  They may have lost their four warm-up games, but in many ways it was the best thing for them.  They refused to panic, and were ready for battle by the time the Australia game rolled up.  They also had an emotional well into which to dip, and duly did so.

But if the management deserve credit for navigating the pool stages then they deserve some flak for the quarter-final shambles.  Ireland were tactically inept and possibly complacent.

Keith Earls spoke beforehand of ‘dreaming of a World Cup final’.  What was he thinking?

The sight of the man picked to kick Ireland’s goals turning down two kickable penalties early on was mystifying.  Did Ireland think the early try against them was just an abberation they could cancel out at will?  Ireland, for all their much-vaunted cup rugby experience, either panicked or paid too little respect to their opponent.

Kidney had a fine championship, but he must regret not starting the game with the halves who started the Australia game.  No-one could have expected ROG to play so poorly, but Sexton’s running threat would have asked more questions of Wales’ fast-up defence.  Gareth Thomas revealed in a pre-match interview that Wales would have been thrilled O’Gara had been selected.   Why give an inexperienced side such a fillip?  Sure enough, they targeted him, ran through him, and cut him off from his backline.

Paul O’Connell after the defeat on Saturday morning. Pic: INPHO/Billy Stickland

Also, Ireland’s lack of a Plan B came back to bite them.  WoC has banged on to the point of tedium about the importance of the modern openside, but Kidney seems to have a blind spot to it.  Several media pundits have spent the weekend crying out for Ireland to start developing 7′s, but nobody has pointed out that we had one sitting in the stands.  Nobody here is going to argue that Jennings is as good as Warburton, or that he would necessarily have neutralised his threat, but the introduction of a dedicated fetcher would surely have made some sort of difference when it was apparent that Ireland were being slaughtered at the ruck.  Instead, Ireland brought on a 6 and a 4 to replace an 8 and a 6.

‘It doesn’t matter how you qualify from your pool as long as you get out of it’

In the event, Ireland’s supposed ‘experience’ was massively overplayed (guilty as charged m’Lud) – Ireland last played a knockout game in 2003, when they were thrashed by France.  Heineken Cup medal counts were produced as evidence, but as we discussed on BP Rugby, the Heineken Cup is a very different tournament.

Games are spread out, allowing teams to drop intensity between rounds and rise to the boil.  After winning it in 2009, Michael Cheika spoke of having learned how to master this art, of ‘almost manufacturing dips’ in the Magners League to ensure the team peaks emotionally for the right games.  The World Cup knockouts allow no such wriggle room – it’s full on intensity one week after the next.  Ireland just can’t get enough consistency to sustain a challenge in a tournament like this.

This weekend it was clear that it doesn’t matter how you qualify from your pool as long as you get out of it.  Only Argentina were condemned to defeat for coming second in their pool.  Look at France – they got through their group with the bare minimum of effort, but have plenty in the tank for the task ahead of them.  Ultimately, Ireland’s win over Australia, magnificent and thrilling though it was, wasn’t that important.  It’s the knockout games that really count – and Ireland have never won one in seven World Cups.

The ultimate feeling is one of sadness, particularly for the great players, BOD, POC, ROG and D’arcy among them, who will not get another chance to reach a World Cup semi-final, or even further.

You suspect the younger players, though they will be back, will never get a better one either.  But we’ll always have Eden Park.

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