Ireland fans hordes leave Paris in disbelief it ended like this

There was no hiding that the fairytale did not end the way the Irish team expected it to

The Irish players didn’t try to mask their sense of failure. They wore it on their faces in their posture, the words they spoke and their altered voices. The organisers in the stadium knew it too. They declined to play the song that had come to be an Irish rugby anthem at this World Cup.

They read the mood as the team slowly filed around a still and sunken Stade de France, the hobbling contrail of Mack Hansen, supported on either side, at the back of a strung-out ribbon of green.

On the up, and driving forward for the last minutes but ultimately another quarter-final bust and the players saw it for what it was – a footnote that says no better or worse than any other of the eight World Cups that came before, and says little at all about the journey that in Irish hearts and minds was set to continue.

Disappointment but no dishonour, they captured the sporting zeitgeist this autumn. In that there was much to be proud of. But the players and management could not contain the unsaid words. The tournament wasn’t primarily about self-worth or glorification. It was about daring to win. Succeeding.


In defeat the curtain fell and this time there was no room to fail better. The curse of the knockout phase and the number one team in the world coming in second played out like an old retold story.

An epic 12 rounds that could have been, like Ireland’s epic pool game against South Africa, a final, did nothing for the post-match mood around the squad and management, which was a mix of incredulity and shock. When Iain Henderson, the Ulster secondrow, tried to explain what his changing room was like, he struggled.

“A huge amount of disappointment, a huge amount of disbelief – that’s not the right word,” he said.

It had been set up to end like this in the event of defeat. Deflation and “the ifs and buts and maybes and all that” as Irish coach Andy Farrell said. There was no avoiding that void, the 28-24 scoreline marking an abrupt end of the adventure for this team configuration, the closing of the international careers of Johnny Sexton and Keith Earls and the mood music that has collaborated for 17 consecutive wins. It all did not just stop in Stade de France. It came crashing down.

There were sunken eyes and trembling voices and in team captain and figurehead Sexton, considerable dignity emerged through his emotional and cracking replies.

“They are the best group I’ve ever been a part of bar none,” he said as he mulled over the evening. Wonder crept in to how the team performed and he spoke of being suckerpunched by the All Blacks, being outsmarted and outplayed and the hurt that caused, because the team believed they had gotten themselves to a place where that would not happen.

People had bought into that thought and since the beginning of September in Bordeaux, they had carried thousands with them. The fans had come as they always do in small groups. Coalescing, amassing, congregating and marching together in noisy green masses outside Corcorans Irish pub, at the Rugby Village on the Place de la Concorde in central Paris, along the Rue de Clichy and around the beer counters of north Paris and St Denis.

Undeterred by the spitting rain and black clouds gathering over Paris, fans threw themselves into fun scrum machines set up to measure the pressure they could exert, then filed into the 80,000-seater, convinced that their team could shatter past shibboleths.

There captains Sexton and Sam Cane were held for what seemed like and age at the entrance to the pitch under the stand, while the noise levels rose.

But even the All Blacks can be venal and in the first minute an absurd sequence of mistakes might have encouraged the crowd to badly misjudge them with scrumhalf Aaron Smith looping a high pass and a clearing kick sliced. So too did New Zealand easily appear to fill their boots using the slimmest fractures, the smallest Irish chinks.

They first did from a canny chip over by Beaudan Barrett before split second awareness and a breathless one-two passing exchange between Rieko Ioane and Leicester Fainga’anuku landed the first try. The piece of mastery was preceded by more prosaic work with the game barely a quarter old when Ardie Savea, Brodie Retallick and Sam Cane each earned breakdown turnovers and penalties, an ill omen that hushed and crushed the crowd.

The match seemed to lurch into phases, brutal All Black defending and then players fizzing off to score a try, Savea next and then Jordan from way downtown, Ireland all the time unable to smash the game open but driving in wedges, reading the grain to try and get the momentum changed, working the stresses in their favour in the hope the match would fall in line.

But the noise and energy from thumping, heart-beat music and Irish fans on their first wave of optimism that had drowned out the All Black Haka and their slapping thighs, quietened in the middle of the match. Rising again intermittently and to a crescendo at the end, Ireland drove into the black wall. It creaked and moaned and thinned out a few times at the edges. But it never cracked.

Bundee Aki continued to throw himself into spaces where there really was no gap and Mack Hansen drifted and twisted with the ball until his studs gripped and his leg turned and in a painful crashing to the ground. His match, one of the few Irish players who had caused New Zealand pain, was gone.

The last five minutes was a defining period and for the night’s outcome a metaphor for Ireland’s unrewarded labour and falling painfully short, the All Blacks receding into their red zone and daring Ireland to try and break them.

That overarching faith in their defensive powers and discipline might have been read as misplaced after a double yellow card to Aaron Smith and Codie Taylor earlier in the game. Instead, it proved to be another sound option.

“So, are we scared of failure? No.”

It could have been Farrell talking but it was was New Zealand coach Jason Ryan. When he did speak, Farrell was clear.

“For this group it is the end. Things are going to change,” he promised.

The air in Paris was loaded with last chances. The players knew it too.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times