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Regrets and questions will gnaw at Schmidt after Ireland's World Cup exit

Andy Farrell is tasked with taking over and learning the lessons from Ireland’s failings in Japan.

Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Updated Oct 21st 2019, 8:27 AM

CRUELLY FOR IRELAND, they can’t get a flight out of Japan until Tuesday.

It means the process of dealing with the stinging pain of their quarter-final defeat to the All Blacks, Irish rugby’s latest underperformance in a knock-out game, will be delayed by another couple of days.

Most players and coaches would have jumped on the first plane out of Tokyo if given a choice, eager to get out of the city where they were left in agony, keen to return to home comforts and begin the process of moving on.

rob-kearney-dejected Ireland's World Cup ended in dejection once again. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Stuck in Tokyo for an extra couple of days, one imagines that this group of players will largely be looking to drown their sorrows before departing.

“You’re back into club rugby soon and we have a lot of massive games coming up for Munster,” said replacement loosehead Dave Kilcoyne in the immediate aftermath of Ireland’s 46-14 defeat to the Kiwis.

“I know you don’t want to be talking about that now but that’s the reality of it, so you’ve got to move on.”

Most of this Ireland squad, particularly those players who feel they were underutilised by Schmidt and who felt their form was ignored when it came to crunch time, will be desperate to get onto the pitch again after a short break. 

But the post-mortem from Ireland’s failure on the big stage will roll on for some time yet – the next four years in some ways – as it should. Irish rugby needs to get to grips with the challenge that World Cups pose, with Andy Farrell now tasked with leading them through into the 2023 tournament in France.

Ultimately, the steam ran out of the Joe Schmidt ship at the worst time. His final year of a largely successful six-year spell in charge has been miserable at times – Six Nations defeats to England and Wales, a hammering in Twickenham, a shock loss to Japan and now, worst of all, not even firing a shot against his native New Zealand in a World Cup quarter-final.

There will be much talk of Schmidt’s game plan, as ever, but the tactics are arguably irrelevant when a team is making as many basic errors as Ireland have in 2019.

Misplaced passes, poor kicking, lineout slip-ups, inaccurate running lines. While Ireland in 2018 were deservedly praised for the precision of their play, 2019 has seen them repeatedly struggling because of their inaccuracy.

peter-omahony-and-his-daughter-indie-with-kieran-read-after-the-game Kieran Read and Peter O'Mahony, with the Ireland flanker's daughter, Indie. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Through it all, Schmidt kept faith with his tried-and-trusted leaders, even after underperformances. His belief was that they would deliver on the biggest occasion, the World Cup he hoped everything had been building towards. But those same leaders came up short in their efforts in Tokyo on Saturday night, when some of Ireland’s most experienced players were among the most error-prone. 

Should Schmidt have made changes to his first-choice team earlier? Should Jordan Larmour have been backed to thrive as the starting fullback? Did Andrew Conway deserve to be starting ahead of others with bigger Test reputations? Were Rhys Ruddock and Tadhg Beirne ever considered as possibilities to play from the off in the biggest games?

Whether those individuals and others would have made a real difference is difficult to know and perhaps Schmidt will mull over the same questions. 

Schmidt always spoke of the value of competition for places in ensuring the men in possession of certain jerseys had a fire underneath them, but there was certainly a sense from some fringe players that they were never realistically going to be more than that. Schmidt might argue that some of those fringe players never did enough to oust front-liners who had delivered in previous big games.

Indeed, Schmidt’s selection for the All Blacks quarter-final was eminently understandable. Either way, Schmidt is likely to feel let down by his key leaders.

“The amount of handling errors was unacceptable from Ireland,” said Kilcoyne. “It’s not what we’re about and it’s not what the team has become accustomed to over the last few years.

“It was just that New Zealand put us under so much pressure, and you’ve got to look to that as well. I think they forced a lot of those handling errors and full credit to their defence.”

The Kiwis were sublime, of course, and delivered arguably their best performance since the last World Cup but Ireland fed into that with their error count.

joe-schmidt-walks-down-through-the-crowd-after-the-game Joe Schmidt's tenure ends in disappointment. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

What was that down to? Clearly there was some mental aspect to this. Players as good as Robbie Henshaw and Conor Murray simply shouldn’t be losing the ball as easily as they did. Farrell, the man who now succeeds Schmidt, should certainly be looking into Ireland’s mental prep.

As for Schmidt, he deserves a long break from the game. Having deprived himself of sleep so often in a bid to be better prepared, one hopes Schmidt has time to take care of himself and enjoy well-earned time with his family.

But the 54-year-old will find it hard not to think back to this World Cup in quieter moments, with regrets and questions gnawing away at him. Schmidt has earned the right to balance those negative thoughts with memories of his remarkable list of honours with Ireland.

Whatever the reasons for this World Cup disappointment – there are always several – the cold, hard truth is that Ireland have failed to hit the target they set out for themselves in their latest strategic plan.

“I think we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought that anything worse than a semi-final is going to be good for us,” said IRFU performance director David Nucifora in May.

“So we’ve got to get there and we’ve tried to do everything we can. Hopefully, we get the bounce of the ball or a bit of luck from the injury gods along the way, but we’ve tried to do everything we can do to prepare and like any high-level competition, you do need an element of luck along the way in those tournaments.

“So 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.”

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Murray Kinsella

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